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Inevitable

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 Inevitable

 adjective|in•ev•i•ta•ble|\i-ˈne-və-tə-bəl\

Inescapable; unavoidable; certain
fate

 


July


Someone Tell Me When My Heart Will Stop Breaking



“Do you remember when we were just kids?”


Willow’s words burned in Tara’s mind as she stared at the page scribbled in her handwriting.


The swooped letters, the little hearts. Her words had been so full of hope.


Now all she could remember was the beginning of the end and one word in particular shrieked in disgust from the one person she thought could never let her down.


She felt her heart breaking in two.


How had everything gone so wrong, so fast?



On a warm Friday evening, Tara Maclay was hunched over the desk in her bedroom, scribbling music into a notebook.


She always had at least one notebook on the go, full of ink with the lyrics that would flow through her mind. When she had been old enough to start learning instruments, the music followed and she could often be seen jotting down a few notes on the back of receipts or napkins or even her own skin as they entered her head, lest she forget the melodic moment that thrummed through her.


Today the words flowing lightly from her fingers were influenced by something, or rather someone, who had embedded themselves in her mind that day and truthfully, every day.


The silly jokes you've said
Your different colored pens
The secrets you can't keep
The babble in your sleep
Some may call you strange
But me I'd never change
A thing
About you
Oh, about you



She stopped, frustrated.


It wasn’t enough.


It never felt enough.


She could never get down on paper the actual complexity of what she felt.


The deep, resounding feelings that filled her every waking moment.


She put a big X across the page.


She turned to a new page and tried again, this time closing her eyes. The pen hit the paper and the words came; her hand intrinsically knowing exactly where and how to press in the ink to keep the writing neat.


I lived my life in shadow
Never the sun on my face
It didn't seem so sad, though
I figured that was my place
Now I'm bathed in light
Something just isn't right

I'm under your—



Her phone buzzed in her front pocket and she slid her hand in, turning the device over in her palm. Her heart fluttered when she saw who it was from.

 

Image

 

A smile bloomed on Tara’s face and she typed out a quick reply,


Image


She pocketed her phone again and closed her notebook.


She moved spritely from her chair, swung a sitting backpack waiting on her bed over her shoulders and left her bedroom behind. As her feet imprinted on the well-worn carpet on the stairs, she called out loud enough for it to reach wherever her mother was in the house at that moment.


“I’m leaving!”


Kimberly Maclay appeared from the doorway of the kitchen, hidden to the back of the staircase. She was a young woman, one you’d easily mistake for having young children and not teenagers, screeching for her attention.


Her light brown hair stopped at her shoulder and that was one of the only differences between herself and her daughter; their frame and features matched identically, right down to the same angular point on their striking cheekbones.


“Staying over tonight?” Kimberly asked as she pushed a dishcloth around the interior of a saucepan.


Tara nodded and Kimberly smiled amiably.


“Okay. Make sure you’re ready on time tomorrow.”


“I will be,” Tara promised, already making a beeline for the front door.


As she went to open it, it opened first from the other side and she just narrowly avoided getting jabbed in the nose.


Donny Maclay pushed himself through the door and sneered when he saw Tara.


He wasn’t very like his mother or sister at all.


He was broad and scruffy and very much took after his father in looks. Not that Tara would know, as she had no memory of him, nor were there any photos to remind her. But she rarely saw a resemblance between them at all and so had to assume.


“Aren’t you gone yet?”


“Tomorrow,” Tara replied quietly.


“Can’t come quick enough,” Donny muttered under his breath as he walked right past her.


“Donny,” Kimberly chastised with a puffed breath of frustration.


She really wished her kids could get along.


Tara did too. She didn’t know quite why Donny hated her so much; he just did and always had. Her memory was littered with proof of that, from juice boxes being squeezed in her face to bubblegum stuck in her saxophone, to telling the whole school when she got her first period.


It had been a relief when she had gone to a different high school; though even now Donny had graduated from his, he was still living at home and tormenting her.


He stayed put instead of going to college; working some hours at an auto-shop and spending the rest out in some dive bar or sleeping off the resulting hangover. Kimberly did all his cooking and cleaning, meaning all he had to do was roll around the place, grunt and get a dig in at Tara whenever he could.


At least it was easy to strategically avoid him.


And she’d have a total break from him soon. Unfortunately, that meant a break from other things, or people, in her life too. As much as she loved going to camp every year, she missed the only person who’d known her almost as long as her own family had.


“Bye, mom,” Tara called again, not waiting for a response this time before slipping out of the door.


She walked down the path past her front yard, checked both ways before crossing the street and jogged up to the front door of the house that sat directly opposite hers. Her knuckles had barely skimmed the wood when it swung open.


On the other side, Willow Rosenberg stood with a cheerful smile and an even more cheerful sweater.


“I saw you crossing the street.”


“Hi,” Tara returned with an odd mix of bashful familiarity.


Willow stood aside to let her in.


“Come upstairs. I want to show you this funny video I saw online.”


Tara stepped over the threshold she’d stepped over a thousand times before. Living fifty feet from your best friend since you were four years old meant a lot of time spent in each other’s houses.


She followed Willow upstairs, feeling a pang of guilt when her eye-line was drawn to the bounce of her friend’s posterior. It wasn’t that she felt guilty about the associated feelings, but she didn’t want to be like her brother and his friends who so openly leered at girls they were attracted to.


She also didn’t want to get caught. That wasn’t the way she wanted to tell Willow about… everything.


Willow led Tara upstairs and laid on her bed, stomach down with her feet at the headboard and her laptop in front. She maximized a video and pressed replay when Tara laid down beside her.


Tara only half-watched the video, distracted by the sweet smell of Willow’s soap and the way her smile lit up her face when she laughed.


“Did you see? The panda kept sneezing.”


Tara quickly looked back at the screen.


“I liked when it tumbled,” she supplied after a moment.


“Yeah,” Willow agreed with an easy smile, but also with concern in her eyes.


This was the trouble with keeping secrets from your best friend; they knew you too well.


“Are you okay?” Willow continued, softly sympathetic, “Donny being an ass again?”


Tara was relieved to have an excuse given to her.


“Being himself, you mean.”


Willow wrapped an arm around Tara’s shoulders.


“He’s a loser,” she said, with an emphatic squeeze for emphasis, “So are we going to order pizza and fight over whose turn it is to pick a movie?”


Tara smiled. They often followed the same routine when they had sleepovers, ever since their first meeting barely out of diapers — when Kimberly had been asked to babysit when a surprise event came up for Ira and Sheila Rosenberg to attend.


The Maclays had only been living there a week at the time and barely moved in, but Kimberly felt sorry for the small, redheaded child upset at all the disruption and saw an opportunity for Tara to make a friend.


“You can pick,” Tara offered, rolling herself off the bed when she felt her cheeks getting a bit too overheated, “I just need to use the bathroom.”


“Okay, I’ll call in the pizza,” Willow replied as she too got up to choose a movie, “It shouldn’t take too long.”


Tara went into the bathroom attached to Willow’s bedroom. Hers and Willow’s houses had the same basic structure, but Willow’s had been built on and extended to the point that she had an entire level to herself.


Tara envied the space and Willow hated the loneliness.


Tara knew that and had spent a lot of time in the Rosenberg residence, though she’d pulled back as her inner feelings became more apparent to her. Willow had other friends, school friends to fill in the gaps. Tara went to a special school for performing arts so their circles didn’t cross much. They always just had each other around when needed.


This proved to be a mixed blessing of late. Tara could normally control her feelings around her friend, but she’d been aware of them so long now that it was starting to strain. All she could think about when they were together was this big invisible bomb hanging between them. The biggest problem she had was that she had no idea how Willow felt. Sometimes she thought there were signs, other times she convinced herself it was wishful thinking.


That was the other thing about keeping secrets from your best friend — there were too many opportunities for it all to come out.


She tied her hair up and tried to shift her emotional state to something a little more subtle. She flicked her face with water and patted it dry with the soft towel hanging beside the sink. It was her last night with Willow for a while; she wanted it to be a fond memory.


She returned to Willow’s room, where her friend was walking back into the room from the other side with the box of pizza.


“Good timing. I put on Cruel Intentions. Is that okay?”


“How long was I in there?” Tara asked, sitting quickly on the floor at the foot of Willow’s bed, “But, um, yes. That’s fine.”


Willow pressed play the movie and sat with Tara with the pizza between them.


She loved the familiarity of their routine; pizza, movie and staying up half the night talking.


It was funny; she often had the same routine with Buffy but with Tara it was…different.


They ate in silence until there was one lonely slice left and two bellies too full to eat it. Tara was very aware of their hands resting close together and took hers away, idly nibbling on the skin around her thumb.


“She looks kinda like your friend Buffy,” she commented as they watched the movie, the first thing to come into her mind, “But…kind of mean.”


Willow pulled some pepperoni from the slice and ate it on its own.


“She’ll have to be my pizza-and-a-movie buddy while you’re off being a prodigy.”


“It’s just band camp,” Tara replied bashfully.


“Back to back sessions because you’re just too good at too many instruments to pick one,” Willow said back, nudging Tara’s shoulder, “You have no idea how awesome you are, y’know.”


Tara gulped and hoped a flush wasn’t rising on her cheeks.


“We’re missing the movie.”


They continued watching, but Willow wasn’t long in chuckling and interrupting again as one of the more notable scenes played out on screen.


“Remember when we were just kids?” she asked, an oddly-placed lilt of nerves in her voice, “We used to practice kissing for boys?”


She rolled her eyes in Tara’s direction.


“Then no boys asked us out, of course…”


Tara’s heart began to pound. She worked very hard not to remember that. Or at least, only remember when she was alone with her thoughts.


“W-Were you disappointed when Xander started dating that girl? The cheerleader you don’t like?”


Listening to Willow go on about her friend and crush had never been easy for Tara, especially since Willow had known them both almost the same amount of time and he was acquiring the space she wanted to be in more than anything.


Still, she diligently listened and offered genuine advice on how to talk to him. Willow’s happiness always meant more to her than her own.


Willow scoffed.


“Whatever. Don’t know what I ever saw in him anyway. If that’s his taste…yuck! So much for being treasurer.”


Tara glanced at Willow, her eyes shining with innocent hope.


“Really?”


“Yeah, so over it. I’m not spending my senior year moping over that jerk,” Willow replied bitterly, looking down, “Better than crushing on Buffy I guess. Anyone but me.”


Tara frowned but Willow pulled herself together and looked up and over to her, smiling softly.


“What about you?”


“M-Me?”


Tara clammed up and Willow’s voice grew teasing but laced with something else that sounded vaguely threatening.


“Nate looks at you, you know. I see it when you guys play.”


Nate Williamson was a friend of Tara’s, better described as a bandmate. They wrote music together and sometimes played sets at The Bronze or local events and parties. They also volunteered once a month at the old folks’ home where Tara’s mother worked as a nurse.


He was a nice guy and excellent guitarist; Tara enjoyed making music with him but he did not make her heart a-flutter. Only one person had ever done that.


“I don’t like Nate like that,” Tara replied, looking down at her hands as they tumbled over each other in her lap. She avoided this topic like the plague and in the past Willow had been distracted enough by Xander to not notice Tara’s silence, “I…I don’t like any boys.”


“You’ve never liked a single person?” Willow asked with amused disbelief.


Tara hated this. It physically hurt to have to lie and bottle everything up and then be probed.


“That’s not what I said,” she replied in a strained whisper.


Willow turned, the movie forgotten, with curious eyes.


“Well, who then? Spill!”


Tara paled and continued gazing into her lap in silence.


“Well?” Willow prompted again, giggling at seeing Tara squirm, thinking it for a very different reason, “I knew someone would catch your eye eventually. Who is it?”


Tara could feel green eyes boring into her and had to tuck her hands between her knees to stop them from shaking. She slowly raised her head to look at her friend-since-forever and heard the word tumbling out of her mouth before she even consciously made the decision to say it.


“Y-you.”


Willow rolled her eyes.


“Oh, haha. April 1st passed a while ago.”


The silence boomed between them, confusion rippling on Willow’s face.


“Tara, what are you talking about?” Willow asked, her voice rising an octave, “Are you… are you gay or something?”


Tara felt the knife stab in her heart and the blood rush between her ears as her secret exploded in front of her eyes.


“I-I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”


Willow scrambled to stand and put space between them.


“I’m not like that!”


“I’m sorry,” Tara repeated lamely, feeling the shake move from her hands to her whole body as she stood too.


Willow looked like steam might blow out of her ears.


“You can’t just land that on me! You’ve been tricking me all this time, kissing me!”


“I-I stopped it when I realized how I felt,” Tara replied with an echoing voice, “Remember, Willow, I’m the one who said we should stop.”


“I’m not some dyke!” Willow spat in return.


Both of their faces contorted in shock as those words hung in the air. Willow seemed stunned that the word had even come out of her mouth and Tara’s face was frozen in hurt.


Tara broke the eerie stillness to snatch up her backpack.


“I should go.”

“Yeah I think that’s a good idea,” Willow replied with quiet anger, though she didn’t know which one of them it was directed at.


Tara turned before the tears actually fell, but only just. Her cheeks were wet before she got out the door and the collar of her shirt was starting to become damp by the time she rushed across the street and let herself back into her house.


She made a beeline for the stairs and bounded up and into the bathroom, the only place where she could be ensured of some privacy. She was actually grateful for the overpowering stench of Donny’s cheap aftershave because at least it meant he had gone out.


She locked the door, tossed her backpack into the tub and sank down to sit with her back against it, sobbing into her knees to conceal the sounds.


Still, it only took a moment for there to be a knock on the door.


“Tara?” Kimberly called through, “What’s wrong? I thought you were staying the night at Willow’s?”


Tara took in a short breath and closed her eyes to focus on her words and not the tears streaming down her cheeks.


“The pizza upset my stomach,” she called back with impressive restraint on the wobble in her voice, “It’s nothing, I just need my own bed.”


There was silence, then Tara heard her mother speak again, accepting the answer.


“I’ll put a hot water bottle in your bed.”


“Thanks,” Tara croaked back.


She waited until she heard retreating steps before running the faucet to fill up the sink and plunge her face into the cold water. She screamed, though there was no evidence of it but the bubbles that rushed to the surface carrying her pain.


She emerged from the water with a gasp and let the cold sting dominate her sensations for a moment. She could taste Donny’s aftershave and it made her gag.


She dried her face, her heart still pounding but in a more steady rhythm; one she could use to regulate her breathing. She crept across the hall to her bedroom and sank down onto her bed, looking ahead with a sad gaze.


Her eye landed on the notebook she’d been so happily pouring her heart out to earlier.


Do you remember when we were just kids? she recalled Willow’s sweet voice, though it only caused a stab of agony in her heart now, Yes…when I wasn’t…when she didn’t hate me.


In a fit of anger, she tore the page straight out and let it float back down onto her desk, slamming the nearest book on top of it just to ram it home.


Again, it wasn’t enough but this was a whole different emotion from earlier. She grabbed the page and squashed it into a tight ball wrought with the tension she felt coursing through her. She flung it as hard as she could but it only ended up a foot away, so she booted it as hard as she could with her foot.


Anger was not an emotion Tara was accustomed to feeling and it fizzled from her as soon as her foot landed back on the floor. She picked up the scrunched ball and smoothed them out.


Those words had really meant something. She couldn’t just throw it away.


She folded the creased paper and tucked it away in her nightstand.


Left with just an echoing sadness, she took off her shoes and curled under her blanket; hiding her face and leaving just the top of her head exposed.


Her door creaked open and she tried to hide from her mother under the blanket.


“Is everything okay? I heard a bang.”


Tara clenched her jaw. If her mother knew she was crying she’d want to know why and Tara didn’t know if she had the strength to lie.


“I just dropped a book,” she said, sounding appropriately ropey for someone with an upset stomach, “I’m fine. I just want to go to sleep.”


Kimberly left and Tara thought she’d gotten away with it, but just a couple of minutes later, the door creaked again and Tara felt the sag of the mattress as her mother sat beside her.


“Sip on this,” Kimberly advised, leaving a glass of sparkling water on the nightstand and placing the hot water bottle on Tara’s pillow, “If you don’t feel better in the morning we can delay—”


“I’ll be fine,” Tara cut off.


Kimberly rubbed Tara’s back and tucked her sheet in before leaving a kiss on top of her head.


“Goodnight sweetheart,” she said before flipping the light-switch and leaving her daughter alone in the darkness.


Tara closed her eyes, bunched sheet in her hands and contemplated in distress just how much of her life she had ruined.


Across the street, in an all too familiar move, Willow removed her hand from beneath her pajama bottoms and cried herself to sleep.



Willow walked at a glacial pace from her house to the Maclay house; the fifteen-second journey stretching into whole minutes.


Finally, she was at the door, but it was another minute until she found the courage to knock.


She felt awful and she just wanted her best friend back.


Kimberly opened the door and seemed pleased to see her. She’d always had a soft spot for Willow.


“Oh, hello Willow,” she greeted, “What can I do for you?”


Willow swallowed several times before speaking.


“Is Tara here?”


Kimberly frowned.


“Oh, sweetheart, she left for camp,” she said softly, concerned, “Didn’t she go over to say goodbye?”


Willow felt like she’d been hit with a ton of bricks. In the flurry of emotion she’d been feeling, she had completely forgotten about Tara going to camp.


That meant six long weeks before she could speak to her face to face again. It physically ached.


“Yeah, no, of course. I-I meant to say is her bookbag here?” Willow covered, whilst clearing her throat, “She said I could borrow a book.”


Kimberly just smiled.


“Oh, of course. You can go up to her room and check.”


Willow nodded in gratitude and made her way up the stairs with her hands in her pockets. She went into Tara’s room and stood aimlessly with a frown because the room smelled like Tara and that hurt.


Worse, she hated that it hurt so much. It shouldn’t hurt to smell your friend’s perfume just because she wasn’t around to smell directly. She bonked the side of her head with the heel of her hand.


I don’t want to smell her! Shut up you useless block of grey matter.


She dropped into the seat at Tara’s desk and picked up the notebook sitting there to lightly bang against her head in the hope it might suddenly straighten her out.


When it did nothing but give her a headache, she dropped the book into her lap with a sigh. It opened on the page before the one Tara had ripped, on the lyrics with the big X through them.


The lyrics were identifiable and personal and Willow knew immediately they were about her.


Mimicking what Tara had felt the night before – anger, panic, and confusion, in different spades for slightly differing reasons — Willow also ripped that page out, tore it in two to get rid of the evidence then scrunched up the paper and tossed it, not even looking long enough to see it roll under the bed.


Only half-remembering to take a book, any book, with her, she trudged back down the stairs, stopping to say goodbye to Kimberly just to be polite.


“When are your parents home?” Kimberly asked, arms lightly folded on her chest.


Willow shrugged. She really wanted to get out of there.


“I haven’t checked their schedule. Next week some time.”


“When was the last time you had a proper meal?” Kimberly asked in that concerned motherly tone, then continued before Willow could answer, “Stay right there.”


Willow went to great pains to stay on the spot but was grateful when Kimberly returned with half a pan of leftover lasagna wrapped up. It looked a lot better than what she’d been feeding herself.


“Thank you, Ms. Maclay,” she said, feeling far too emotional for just the receipt of lasagna.


Stupid Tara and her stupid mother being so stupidly perfect.


She mumbled a goodbye and rushed back home at ten times the speed she’d left. She felt guilty for that thought. She felt guilty for a lot of thoughts. If she could just get Tara out of her damn head.


That’s what she had to do. Put Tara out of her head.


She took her phone from her pocket and pulled up the name she was looking for. She pressed the call button and waited anxiously for the other side to pick up.


“Hey, Xander. Can I come over?”

Chapter Text


The Summer Before Middle School


I Found Heaven On Earth
You Are My Last, My First
(And Then I Hear This Voice Inside…)



An empty pizza box and a stack of DVDs lay strewn across the floor of Tara’s bedroom.


She was showing Willow her new keyboard and a small three-note tune she’d dubbed Willow’s Theme in honor of Willow’s latest obsession with Harry Potter. It was short enough for Willow to play herself, but she seemed less than enthused.


“You’re so lucky you’re good at something. I’m just good at computers and nobody cares about that. Especially boys. Xander only ever asks me over to fix his Sims.”


Tara let her hands fall away from the keys onto her lap. Her hair still fell into her face but her eyes were always brighter when Willow was around.


“I’ve never really had a guy I liked. Not like you like Xander.”


She pulled at her sleeves out of nervous habit before looking across to Willow.


“Are you going to ask him out?”


Her words caught like they hurt to come out. Willow frowned, then shrugged. She didn’t like when she was pushed to talk about him.


“Do you want to kiss him?” Tara prompted some more and Willow suddenly felt panicked.


“I’m kinda scared,” she deduced of her feelings, “I don’t even know how to kiss. What if I suck and he hates it?”


“No one could hate anything about you,” Tara replied sincerely.


Willow smiled and brought some her long hair forward, twirling the ends.


“Maybe I should practice,” she said, casting a sidelong glance to Tara, “Or we should practice? There’s going to be so many new guys in middle school…I bet you’ll find one. You’re so pretty.”


Tara’s brow creased and she looked uncertainly toward the teddy bear sitting on her bed that may have been the object of her practice before.


“How do we practice?”


Willow looked at Tara through her lashes, her green eyes hesitant.


“Together?”


Tara was silent for a moment as she worked out the request.


“Together-together? Like…kiss each other?”


Willow nodded whilst biting the skin around her thumb.


“Yeah. So we know what do to when boys kiss us. They do it on TV.”


Tara felt odd about that proposition. Part of it appealed to her and part of it didn’t and it was confusing to work out which part corresponded to which emotion. She’d never been able to deny Willow’s earnest eyes anything though and there was a tug of something else inside her screaming ‘yes’.


“Okay.”


“Oh!” Willow replied, surprised. She’d almost been expecting Tara to say no, “Okay.”


They sank down to the floor together, huddled close like when they snuck a scary movie from Donny’s collection and watched it even when they knew they weren’t supposed to. Neither moved for a moment, then tried to move at the same time and bumped heads.


“Ow,” Willow said, rubbing the point of impact on her temple while Tara blushed and ducked her head.


When her gaze lifted, their eyes met and they moved closer again.


Their breath was garlicky from the pizza and their lips slightly chapped from the heat but immediately they both pressed in for more when they touched for the first time. Their lips pressed hard enough together that their teeth clacked against each other and they broke apart.


Willow rubbed her front tooth silently for a moment, contemplating if kissing was meant to have this many injuries. It didn’t take long to decide she didn’t care; it felt nice. It felt very nice. She dragged her gaze back to Tara’s.


“…try again?”


Tara seemed more than willing and they came together again, all lips this time but no teeth. It was softer and sweeter and though neither knew any different it felt like a natural fit. It was chaste, yet the most stimulating thing either had ever experienced.


It was fireworks and popping candy and a hot punch to the gut that was confusing and enthralling all at once.


They both had the same thought.


I think I wanna do this every night.


They didn’t stop until a creaky floorboard outside the room alerted them that someone was passing and that they weren’t, in fact, in a world all of their own. Willow instantly paled, in contrast to her plumped bottom lip that was bruised from Tara’s caress.


“You won’t tell anyone, will you?”


Tara’s lips were tingling so hard she started to wonder if she’d accidentally consumed some shrimp.


“Of course not,” she managed, pursing her lips together after as if they might lock in that sweet taste she’d never known existed and would never know anything but for the rest of her life.


There was a lull until Willow’s watch, what once had borne Doogie Howser’s face but was now plain digital, beeped on the hour. She used the bed frame as leverage to stand up.


“My parents told me to be home by nine.”


Tara stood too, her hand holding the back of her neck anxiously.


“Okay,” she said, offering a small smile, “Bye Willow.”


Willow’s belly did a flip-flop and she did not like her uncertainty of what that reaction meant one bit.


“Bye Tara.”


Willow hurried downstairs and out, unusually not stopping to say goodbye to Ms. Maclay. She had other thoughts, and feelings, to deal with and her mind was not the focused beacon she had been known to possess.


She let herself in with her house key, as she was accustomed to doing, and didn’t bother trying to find her parents to say goodnight. They hadn’t even told her to be home by nine. They didn’t register her comings and goings much at all anymore unless her mother wanted her for an event or to go clothes shopping.


Her dad still read the Torah with her; that was nice. But she definitely wasn’t seeking him out tonight.


She went straight to her room, closed her curtains, turned off all the lights and got into bed.


She thought whatever she was feeling might go away and hide if she could just hide herself but the quiet just made it all the more palpable.


Not quite sure what she was doing, she reached into her pajama bottoms to see if she could source what was happening to her body.


That night would spark a confusion that would take several years and a lot of heartache to overcome.


It would lead them to the year where it seemed like everything changed, but in fact, it would be the year that everything worked out the way it was meant to right from the very start.

Chapter Text


August


What Am I Supposed To Do When The Best Part Of Me Was Always You?



Willow raised her knuckles, hesitated just for a moment, then knocked on the wooden door.


The door opened, but it wasn’t the Maclay woman she’d hoped for.


“Hello, Willow,” Kimberly greeted pleasantly.


“Is Tara here?” Willow asked, feeling a sense of déjà vu as she thought about how many times she’d stood vulnerable on this porch.


She’d been waiting six weeks to even say Tara’s name and it felt dry on her tongue, such was the pain of the memory of when they’d last seen, or even spoken, to each other. Tara had always kept in contact at camp before, but Willow hadn’t received a single message the whole time she’d been away.


It had been a supremely lousy time in her life.


“She’s already headed out to the show,” Kimberly answered, then continued off Willow’s confused look, “She didn’t tell you she’s playing the Bronze tonight?”


No. No, she didn’t. She always tells me about her shows in the Bronze. I always go.


“No, right, of course,” Willow replied quickly, “I’m, ah, meeting her there. Scatterbrain today, you know getting ready for school to go back and all. I was just double checking the time.”


“8 pm,” Kimberly replied with a fond smile, “You keep my daughter in line and get her home at a reasonable hour.”


Willow nodded tersely.


“Bye Ms. Maclay.”


Kimberly waved her goodbye with an unsure look on her face, but Willow didn’t see. She had her hands stuffed in her pockets as she made her way home, her den of solitude of late.


The door banging behind her rang through the silent house, as did the rubber of her sneakers squeaking on the wooden stairs. She threw herself on her bed and wrapped her arms around her poop emoji pillow, a gift from Tara on her last birthday with the accompanying note that she was ‘poo-fect’. It was icky and funny and it had its pride of place on Willow’s bed ever since.


She brought her phone out to text Buffy to see if they could hang out but got the same message she’d received a hundred times over the past few weeks.


Image


Never could, these days. At least she’d bothered to text back.


Willow stared at the white wall opposite her and tried very hard not to cry.


Everything was so quiet.


Quiet, quiet, quiet and she could barely stand it anymore.


She was miserable and knew it was entirely self-inflicted.


She’d cried many tears in the passing weeks, but the big heaving sobs were for when she remembered Tara’s face after calling her…


After using the ‘D’ word.


She couldn’t even bring herself to think it.


Sweet Tara who had never said a bad word to her in her life; who’d been her best friend for as long as she’d had memory. Who’d given her a hug the first time they’d met to make her feel better and had always been there for another one whenever she needed it.


Except now.


Now Willow had sent her away in the most insulting way possible because Tara had dared to voice the silent pull between them that had always existed. And it had just grown and grown as they put years on the calendar.


Willow knew it, but she’d never had to question it.


She'd found it strange when she met Buffy and established a sister-type relationship with her because Tara should have filled that role given their history. But she was always just…Tara. And she meant more than a label.


The wall became unbearably monotonous to look at and she pushed herself off the bed again. She couldn’t watch TV because it reminded her of Tara. She couldn’t listen to music because it reminded her of Tara. She couldn’t even take a walk because it meant she’d have to pass Tara’s bedroom window at least twice along the way. She just couldn’t get her out of her head.


She realized the only hope she had to get out from under her own thoughts was to go to Tara and apologize. At least then she’d know Tara didn’t think that she really thought…


She shuddered.


She pounded back down the stairs and swung by the kitchen to get some dinner. She’d eaten the last of the Maclay leftovers she’d frozen at 2 am when she couldn’t sleep, so she reverted to her old reliable.


She dropped a Pop-Tart into the toaster and opened the tab on a can of Mountain Dew. The unforgettable taste of childhood neglect.


With some sugar propping up her courage, she headed for the front door, passing a mirror on the way. She stopped and detoured to the bathroom to brush her hair through and put some bronzer stuff Buffy had given her on her cheeks to liven them up from the ghostly pale they had become. She glossed her lips with cherry chapstick because she knew it was one of Tara’s favorite flavors.


Her brain wasn’t even processing what the implications of that were. She’d just always done it when Tara came over.


She took a look at herself in the mirror. Her eyes looked weary and bloodshot and just sad.


She had to do this.


At least Tara would know she was sorry.


She locked up the house and went to retrieve her bike. She kicked the tires quick to check on them; Donny had a habit of messing with hers or Tara’s bike when the whim took him.


It had gotten dark since she was last out so she turned the flashlight on the bike on as she threw her leg over the saddle. She passed almost nobody as she rode into town; Sunnydale was often eerily quiet.


She parked on the rack two blocks away so no one would see her arriving on her bike. She didn’t need to give any more ammunition to the general high-school aged populous to pick on her for. They did it well all on their own.


She felt nervous as she approached the Bronze and heard music, knowing that once she got inside she’d hear Tara’s voice accompanying it.


She stepped in and was overwhelmed at first at all the lights and sounds.


Being shut out of a social life for six weeks can really do a number on you.


She looked above the crowd and her breath caught looking at Tara on stage; her hair tied back as she enthusiastically played the sax, accompanying her friend Nate as he rapped.


They usually drew a crowd at the Bronze when they played because of…well, mostly because of Nate. He ticked every box in the tall, dark and handsome categories and his voice was as deep as it was dulcet. He was utterly charming in every way and a damn good musician too. All the girls flocked to their shows for him but stayed for their shared performance.


They played a range of styles — covers and originals — and had something for everyone. Tonight was even busier than normal because it was the last weekend before school started up again and everyone was enjoying their last moments of freedom.


Willow was grateful; it made it easier to hang back and be lost in the crowd.


After just a minute or so, she could feel eyes on her.


She cautiously glanced around while staying rooted to the spot.


It only took one sweep for her to be crushed twice in quick succession. The first, when she saw Cordelia Chase glaring at her and then trying to act nonchalant in front of her hangers-on.


A fresh wave of humiliation washed over her as she saw her for the first time since that day.


She hoped Xander wasn’t here too.


Almost worse was the second familiar face she saw; Buffy with a guy, tall and brooding (Willow guessed the new boyfriend, not that Buffy had ever tried to introduce him) and some other dark-haired (and dark-clothed) girl.


It stung because it didn’t seem like Buffy was on a date what with the third guest, yet still hadn’t invited her along.


Feeling truly and utterly rejected, she turned to run, her go-to move when confronted with her problems but before she could make it a step, she heard something to make her stop in her tracks.


Willow turned and watched Tara, lit up like a halo from the spotlight, singing and playing along on her keyboard while Nate offered some soft guitar accompaniment in the shadows.


Willow felt a slow gasp rise in her lungs and bubble out as Tara’s sweet, sweet voice that she’d missed so much spoke to her soul. It was like an electric spark in her heart. Tara’s eyes were closed but Willow still felt like she was singing right at her.


And if you have a minute, why don't we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So why don't we go?
So why don't we go?



Tara looked up and fell off with a soft murmur.


Somewhere only we know…


They got a round of applause and Nate stepped up to the microphone.


“Thank you, we’ve been Insect Reflection!” Nate called out to the crowd, “We’d like to finish things off with something to get you on your feet.”


Someone started playing the harmonica but Willow didn’t see which of them it was.


Her head was swimming.


That was for her.


Tara sang that for her.


Somewhere only we know.


She knew exactly the place.


To an unseen glare to her retreating form from Cordelia’s table, Willow raced out and hopped back on her bike, cycling straight to the old park near the quarry.


Not many people came here anymore since the other town park with the maintained landscape and pond had opened, but when they were kids this was the furthest place Willow and Tara were allowed to walk to on their own.


Paradise Park, though it was far from paradise now with overgrown foliage and litter everywhere.


There was an abandoned playground with most of the equipment removed or repurposed somewhere else, leaving just a rusty swing set that was pretty much cemented into the ground and wasn’t able to be dug up easily.


Willow had spent a lot of time here lately. A place to think that was quiet, but not achingly silent as the trees and critters offered some natural background noise.


She’d been thinking a lot too, about a lot of things.


Boys.


Girls.


Herself.


Tara.


She reminisced on when they ‘practiced’ kissing ‘for the boys’ and how she’d never, not once, actually thought of a boy; not even the one she purported to like and knew for sure now she absolutely didn’t.


She’d been the one to start it and she’d been the one who’d just nodded but felt crushed inside when Tara said they should stop.


Because she wasn’t sure she had the technique down, she told herself.


They’d only been making out at least once a week for years and that was nowhere near the ten thousand hours you needed to become an expert in something.


That was definitely the reason.


Not because her friend’s soft, sweet lips sent her to heaven or invoked a rush of feeling like nothing else could. Not because Tara was the only thing in the world that made Willow’s heart go a million miles a second. Not because it also slowed her brain down until reason dissolved and all she knew was how those lips felt.


See, being with Tara, actually being with Tara was so very easy for her to imagine.


She had imagined it, often.


She just hated what it meant.


She sat carefully on one of the worn black leather swing seats, held to the rusted frame by metal chains that just barely hung on. They still came down here often enough when they wanted to talk in private and neither house was available, so she knew just how much pressure she could apply to the seat.


It was a clear night and the late summer air still hung thickly, making you notice every breath as it left your lungs. Willow wished it was a cooler night; she was already sweating enough. Her palms held the chains either side of the swing but they would slide down any time she gripped too tightly.


There was nobody around — there never was.


Willow could remember the area filled with kids when they were really little. They would have to fight for the swings back then, but then the new playground was constructed in the prettier park and this place had become effectively abandoned.


To most people, it was a dump, but for her and Tara it had become a secret wilderness where they’d spent their childhood having adventures and their teens hiding out from the world.


It was their place.


She stayed there a long time, her heart sinking with every passing minute. She was starting to accept she’d gotten the wrong end of the stick when a soft voice broke through the silence; one she’d missed desperately; one she hadn’t even realized said her name so sweetly until she heard it again after such an absence.


“Willow.”


Willow scrambled to stand, wiping her hands on the front of her jeans. She stared dumbly for a moment, feeling the rush of butterflies that seeing Tara invoked.


“Somewhere only we know, right?” she asked with a nervous upward inflection, her eyes creasing at the Tara’s furrowed brow, “I thought…you were singing it… for me.”


Willow gulped and Tara took a moment to process.


“I didn’t know you were there.”


Willow’s eyes closed painfully.


Great.


Rejection was certainly the theme of the night.


Willow kept her eyes closed so Tara wouldn’t see the tears forming, and was about to quickly pivot and run once again when Tara’s voice echoed out again.


“But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t for you.”


Willow looked up sharply, her unshed tears thankfully staying as a glassy shine in her eyes.


Tara stared back, processing her feelings. Not just from seeing Willow again but that Willow had both been at the show and had come here, to this place, under her unintentional direction.


Willow’s gaze dropped uncomfortably and she eased back down onto the swing.


Tara contemplated what to do next, but she didn’t know. So she just sat, perching on the second swing and letting her sneakers push the dirt on the ground beneath them around.


The silence was as heavy as the air with both of them avoiding eye contact, unsure where they stood with each other.


“How was camp?” Willow ventured after a few minutes, her voice close to cracking.


How was camp? Tara thought to herself Is she serious?


“Honestly?” Tara answered in a sad tone, “Lonely.”


The daytime was fine when she had plenty of distractions on hand, the night time had her sniffling into her pillow, trying desperately not to wake the girls she was sharing a room with.


“Hah,” Willow spat out bitterly, her eyes quickly scrunching up with regret, “Sorry, I’m not laughing at you. I just… I know all about that. Did you hear they wrote a book about my life? It’s called ‘How To Lose Friends And Alienate People’.”


Tara had never seen Willow so low in herself. She’d been dreading seeing her and the wound was still raw but she couldn’t help feeling concerned. Right from their very first meeting, she’d always been the guardian of Willow’s feelings.


“What happened?” she asked softly.


Willow reached across her own chest and lightly scratched under her ear, a distraction technique to focus sensation away from her weakening tear ducts.


“Buffy found a new guy and a new crowd to hang around with; Xander and I aren’t speaking. My parents were home one day, one day the whole six weeks you were gone,” she said, pushing her nail against her skin a bit harder as she went on, “I just…I haven’t had anyone to talk to.”


Tara lifted a hand to rub Willow’s arm for comfort, but her fingers quickly folded in on themselves again.


“I’m sorry you’ve been so isolated,” she said finally, her voice automatically taking on the comforting tone her body was afraid to express.


Willow’s eyes closed and when she opened them again, tears streamed down her cheeks.


“You’re being so nice to me when I was so awful to you.”


She faced Tara, her lower lip trembling.


“I’m so sorry about what I called you.”


Tara looked away. That word had certainly echoed through her head many times.


“You didn’t really,” Tara said in an unconvinced whisper.


It was kind of true; Willow had been voicing her own fear of being labeled such a word, but that didn’t take away from it being so carelessly tossed at Tara like that. The impact was no less.


“I said it,” Willow echoed, her palms squeezing the chains tighter, “But I didn’t mean it. I don’t think like that. I don’t care if you’re—”


They both looked away at the same time, uncomfortable with what wasn’t said.


“I thought you hated me,” Tara eventually replied, “I didn’t think you’d ever want to see me again.”


“You’re not the person I hate,” Willow said through a barely audible exhale, “I could never hate you, Tara. I was…angry.”


Tara dug the toe of her sneaker deeply into the dirt.


“My feelings are not your burden and I should never have said anything or made you feel uncomfortable,” she rattled off, a sentence she’d practiced often in case Willow was willing to talk to her again.


“No, Tara,” Willow replied with a bitter laugh, wiping her eyes with her sleeve, “I wasn’t angry that you told me how you felt…I was angry that you made me confront my own feelings.”


Tara turned, surprised, but Willow kept her gaze down.


“Your feelings?” Tara prompted, struggling not to let her mind rush ahead of herself, “Do you mean about me… or about you—”


Willow looked up sharply again and Tara swallowed the rest of the sentence. She pursed her lips for a moment, gathered her thoughts and addressed Willow again.


“What is it that you want from me, Willow? Why did you come here to wait for me tonight?”


Willow dropped her head into her hands in frustration; she barely knew herself let alone how to vocalize it.


“I just want things to go back to how they were before,” she said eventually, then sighed deeply like she was admitting to a crime, “Except I want more than that. I want that special thing that’s always just belonged to us. I want that part of you that’s just…mine.”


Tara’s head was reeling. She’d thought her friendship with Willow had been toast, and if she was lucky she wouldn’t be outed before she was ready, but here Willow was, not only apologizing for their fight but possibly agreeing that that thing between them wasn’t all one-sided.


“Willow, I’m…I’m a bit confused. Are you saying…what about Xander?”


Willow shook her head.


“The only time I ever really thought about Xander like that was when I was trying to convince other people I liked him.”


Or myself.


“When you’re a kid and everyone keeps asking which boy you like and you have no idea or even what ‘liking’ someone feels like, choosing one that actually speaks to you seems like a reasonable idea. Now that’s gone out the window too.”


“What happened with him? Why aren’t you speaking?” Tara asked softly.


Willow’s cheeks flushed with fresh embarrassment. She hoped the night gave her enough cover.


“Just…stupid stuff. But he’s not a …a thing. At all. I know that now,” she replied quickly, and then just as fast moved on, “What about you? Did you meet a sexy flutist at band camp? Make some sweet music together?”


She hadn’t meant for it to come out as bitingly bitter as it had, but she couldn’t deny it had been a frequent thought in the intervening weeks.


Tara noted the jealousy but still wasn’t sure where to place it. Willow had always been protective of their friendship and never hung out with both her and her school friends at once. Tara had seen them from the window across the street but Willow had always wanted it to be just them and never any others when they spent time together.


I want that special thing that’s always just belonged to us. I want that part of you that’s just…mine, Tara echoed in her mind, and she couldn’t deny it was true. She glanced downward guiltily.


“Like I said…lonely,” Tara settled eventually and didn’t wish to dwell, “You said you wanted things to go back to how they were before…does that mean friends?”


It was Willow’s turn to scuff her sneaker, her eyes boring into the ground as her body fought her fight or flight response to the questions being posed to her. She eventually looked back up to Tara, slightly desperate.


“Tara, I don’t know…I don’t know what I’m feeling. But I do know…I feel something. And I can’t bury it no matter how hard I try.”


Tara’s hand rested gently on Willow’s thigh.


“You don’t have to bury it.”


Willow almost rebuffed the touch but was stunned into stillness at how much warmth spread through her body. That was what Tara did; just made her feel warm and safe and well, if she was honest—


Willow blinked several times and focused on Tara’s sweet, endearing face looking at her like she was the most wonderful thing in the world. Her heart fluttered; much as she’d like to deny it she was just drawn in.


“Could we…I mean would it be possible if we figure out this thing between us before we go telling other people? I mean can we just…”


She looked at Tara helplessly, who leaned in close enough to whisper.


“Just what?”


Willow was hyper-aware of how close Tara’s lips were and struggled not to stare directly at them.


“What? I mean um…”


Completely drawn in, she closed the space and pressed her mouth to Tara’s, kissing her with less of the awkwardness that had featured in kisses past and all of the longing running deep in her bones.


Willow had never kissed Tara, or anyone else, with no pretense before. This kiss was borne from an actual desire to just kiss her and not practice for anyone else. Part of her was terrified and part of her was thrilled but all of her was pumped with adrenaline as she tasted Tara’s lips for the first, real, time.


Her fists gripped the chain a little too tight but there was too much blood rushing between her ears for her to hear the creaking until it was too late and she was on her way for her butt to meet the ground.


She was momentarily winded, then she tensed with awkwardness. Something very similar to this had happened with an exercise ball in front of the entire gym class and Cordelia had not let her forget it for months.


The feeling of being pulled up and a hand, unintentionally but very much noticeably wiping at the back of her pants brought her back to earth.


“Are you okay?”


Willow still looked slightly shocked as she looked at Tara for a few seconds, then down at her hand where she was still gripping the chain of the swing with the seat trailing on the ground.


Tara glanced in the same direction before their eyes locked again and she brought her hand up to her mouth to cover a snort of laughter. For once, Willow didn’t blush.


Tara wasn’t laughing at her. Tara never laughed at her.


Willow ducked her head and smiled, then joined in with the giggling, a very welcome reprieve to the heavy cloud that had been hanging over her for weeks.


“I broke our seat.”


Tara lifted the other side of the chain and wrapped both sides around the leather seat, which was now just a leather rectangle.


“Let’s keep it as a souvenir.”


She smiled somewhat shyly and Willow offered the same smile back. She finished brushing herself off and awkwardly ran her hand through her hair.


What was the etiquette when you kissed your best friend not-for-the-first-time-but-for-the-first-time-for-real?


“I don’t know what…um…what should we…?”


Tara shrugged one shoulder softly.


She didn’t know either; she hadn’t expected this — she had come to the swings to have a little cry in private.


But she had listened when Willow said she’d like things to be like they were before.


“It’s Friday night. Pizza and a movie?”


Willow seemed pleased and relieved all at once.


“That sounds good. So good.”


Tara wanted to jump up and down or scream in delight or do some kind of happy shuffle. She wanted to do a lot of things — like reach out and take Willow’s hand; feel their fingers intertwine and hold each other like she’d longed to so many other times. But she held herself back, for both of their sakes. Willow was clearly hesitant about this new exploration and Tara fell too hard, too fast — though it would be a denial to say she hadn’t already fallen.


She’d spent too long angst-ing and agonizing about this — about her. She could keep her mouth shut about anything too heavy if it meant she got something. All she’d ever wanted was a chance.


So she held the broken swing seat across her chest and settled for a big grin spread across her face as they turned together to walk from the lot toward the street they called home; Willow walking alongside her bike.


The Rosenberg residence was in darkness as the approached and Willow hung off the gate nervously.


“Do you want to come in? It’s…quiet. My parents are away again.”


“All summer?” Tara asked sympathetically, though she already knew the answer.


“International lecture circuit,” Willow confirmed with a nod, “Great money…no kid…all round good time.”


Willow had actually gone along a few summers to places in Europe and South Africa in her early teens but had seen nothing but lecture and banquet halls. Eventually, she’d just asked to stay home. At least her friends were at home. Or were, when she had had them.


Tara just nodded.


“I’ll just, um, go tell my mom.”


“Cool,” Willow replied easily, “I’ll order the pizza.”


“Cool,” Tara agreed, hiding a crooked smile, “Be back in a few.”


She turned and jogged across the street, letting herself into the house and rushing upstairs with the swing seat lest she got pulled into a line of questioning.


“Hey honey, how was the show?” Kimberly called up the stairs, “Come down and tell me about it.”


Tara successfully hid the swing seat in her closet and came back downstairs.


“I’m going to spend the night at Willow’s if that’s okay?”


Kimberly just sighed in a motherly way.


“Well, I’ve missed you, and I want to catch up, but I can’t say I’m not pleased. I was worried you two had had a fight. She was here earlier all forlorn and was acting odd right after you left.”


Tara swallowed, hoping her face wasn’t giving her away.


“We’re good,” she said casually.


“Good,” Kimberly replied cheerily, “Well I know you two are inseparable so I can hardly deny the reunion. Let me get you some food to bring over. That poor girl never gets a nutritious meal. I’ve been playing doormat tag with her, leaving stuff on her doorstep. Always get the dishes back on the next day or two, sparkling clean.”


She paused, shaking her head as she walked back into the kitchen.


“Thank you. For doing that,” Tara answered, following and hanging out in the doorframe, “I’m sure it meant an awful lot to her. But we’re ordering a pizza tonight.”


Kimberly changed course and retrieved a plastic Tupperware container instead.


“Cookies,” she said, smiling as she handed them over.


“Thank you,” Tara repeated, leaning over to hug her mother.


Kimberly rubbed Tara’s arms and pulled back to look at her.


“You look good. Better than earlier. You had a good time at camp? I thought you were sad it was your last time.”


Tara just smiled back.


“One door closes…”


“Okay, young wise one,” Kimberly chuckled, “Don’t stay up all night preaching and pecking.”


“W-what?” Tara asked, eyes widening.


“Just something my old mom used to say,” Kimberly replied wistfully, “I don’t know if she knew what it meant herself.”


Tara didn’t know much about her grandparents, just that they’d died when her mother younger than even was. She was sure she’d asked as a child but at some point, she understood the responses she got back were pained and had stopped. But every now and then she would get snippets and it was nice to hear.


“Just have a nice night,” Kimberly finished, “And please tell Willow there is always a meal here whenever she needs it.”


Tara nodded gratefully, gave her mother another quick hug and turned for the door. She encountered Donny coming down the stairs, who looked past her and shoulder-bumped her as he passed. Tara frowned and huffed out a breath but didn’t break stride and just walked out without giving him any satisfaction of a reaction.


She hurried faster over to the Rosenberg’s, already eager to see Willow again; to hear her voice, her laugh, her strange stories. To see her bright eyes, her smile and that way Willow looked at her. Part of her brain was screaming ‘danger, danger’ but a larger part just understood that whatever it was between them was worth exploring.


She lifted her hand to knock, but Willow must have been waiting as she opened it before her knuckles made contact.


“Mom made cookies,” Tara said as she stepped inside and held out the container.


Willow took it and swallowed audibly. Kimberly’s kindness had meant a lot to her, not just in the previous weeks, but years.


“Your mom is the best.”


“She’s pretty good as moms go,” Tara agreed.


There was an awkward lull and Willow nodded to the right.


“Um, I got us drinks and snacks. Pizza will be 20 minutes.”


Tara walked into the living room with Willow behind her and sat on one end of the couch, next to the end table with one glass of cherry cola and one with Dr. Pepper, along with a couple of bowls of chips and candy.


Tara closed her hand around her glass and took a sip.


She licked her lips as she swallowed it.


“I knew you tasted familiar,” she whispered, mostly to herself, but Willow was sitting only a foot away and heard.


She blushed her hand brushed over the cylindrical tube in her front pocket as if it was a lucky charm.


She didn’t really know what to do.


This was so familiar and yet so utterly different.


Things were decidedly weird.


She kept rolling her palms down her thighs until she got to her knees and there was no jean left to rub. To keep her hands occupied, she leaned across to get her glass of Dr. Pepper but misjudged the length of her torso to how far she needed to reach. Gravity betrayed her as her upper body started to drop.


She saw her face about to collide with Tara’s crotch an agonizing 1.3 seconds before it happened and putting her hands out to stop it would have only made everything even worse and so she landed right exactly there.


Tara’s hands flew upward on contact and became rigidly tense so she wouldn’t feel Willow’s face pressing into her or the accompanying feelings that needed very little stimulus for her to notice.


Willow scrambled to get up, miraculously staying on her feet and not throwing herself to the floor in the process. She brushed herself off and realized just how open the curtains were.


That could have been bad.


Very bad.


Especially if she’d been leaning over for a different reason. She quickly closed the curtains and sat back on the seat she’d vacated, leaning forward with hands clasped together above her knees.


“Are you ok—” Tara started but Willow quickly cut her off.


“I’m not gay.”


Tara stopped talking and nodded.


“Okay.”


Willow slowly looked over her shoulder.


“That doesn’t bother you?”


Tara just shook her head evenly.


“I’m not asking you to be anything you’re not. Or do anything you don’t want to do,” she said clearly, “I would have been happy to know we’re friends again.”


“I never wanted us not to be,” Willow retorted quickly, still looking uneasy, “What…what do you want from me?”


“I’ve never wanted anything from you, Willow,” Tara replied with soft eyes and a look close to yearning, “I’ve only ever wanted you to be happy.”


Willow’s gaze lifted and settled on Tara’s, knowing her eyes mirrored that look, much as she wanted to deny it. She found herself moving in without realizing her body was in motion and her lips were connecting with Tara’s. She lived for that instant connection, that moment where her mind shut off and she allowed herself to just enjoy the sensation.


She remembered exactly the last time they’d kissed properly before Tara had stopped them. She relived it in her mind often, wishing she’d known it would be the last so she could have savored it more.


She hadn’t anticipated another chance and physically gasped into the kiss like it was her first drink of water on a parched throat.


“Are you okay?” Tara asked, pulling back for a moment.


“Yeah,” Willow replied in a short exhale, barely letting the word complete itself before closing the gap between them again.


This kiss was like no other that had come before it; no guise of exploration or restraint shown. Willow found her hand touching Tara’s face, where she’d always sat on them before to stop things from getting ‘weird’. Feeling Tara’s jaw movements inside and outside of her mouth filled her with physical sensations she was nowhere near ready to process yet. She dropped her palm to Tara’s neck but there was just as much going on there to excite her.


Tara’s pulse was racing and the hair was standing up on the back of her neck and eliciting that kind of reaction just made Willow intoxicated. Her first unabashed experience of consuming Tara would burn into her brain and start a very slow descent down a very scary rabbit hole.


The doorbell was the first thing to part them and Willow pulled away gasping. She was startled by the sudden influx of air and the disorientation of her time perception making those twenty minutes feel like three seconds.


“Shit.”


Tara was a little dazed in the eye and smeared at the mouth but was the first to react to the doorbell ringing a second time. She stood up to answer it, but this prompted Willow into action, who immediately jumped up.


“No, no. I got it,” she called back, her feet not able to carry her quick enough.


Tara sat back down and wiped the sticky streaks of chapstick she felt around her mouth. Willow carried the box of pizza in, after giving the delivery guy a pretty hefty tip without even realizing. She slowly strode back to where she was sitting before, pizza in her lap. She suddenly turned to Tara, eyes slightly panicked.


“I want everything to be the same but everything is very different. That was very different.”


Tara chose not to ask if she meant that in a good or bad way. She felt like Willow’s body and mind were sending conflicting answers to that particular question.


“I’m still just me,” she said in a comforting tone, “We’re still just us.”


She placed a hand over Willow’s.


“Willow and Tara.”


She could see the stress lines still wrinkling Willow’s beautiful skin and it broke her heart to think she was causing her distress.


“Yabba and Dabba,” she tried, her voice just managing not to break.


Willow blinked and slowly began to smile.


“I haven’t thought of that in years.”


The Flintstones was often on TV when they were little as it was one of the few cartoons Donny would watch as well. They created a double act of Yabba (Tara) and Dabba (Willow) and performed various plays or went on various adventures under the heading ‘Yabba and Dabba Doo ___ ’ with the theme changing from anything like outer space to princess cowgirls. One time they tried to do a science lab but Sheila was not impressed when her $200 face cream was used as part of an experiment.


“It’s crossed my mind once or twice,” Tara admitted quietly.


Willow bit the corner of her bottom lip and looked back at Tara, pacified if still a little antsy.


“Can we take it slow?”


Tara sighed in relief.


“As slow as you like,” she promised, squeezing Willow’s hand, “And…whatever, you know, happens… I'll still be here. I'll still be your friend.”


“Of course we'll be friends!” Willow replied empathically, “That's not even a question!”


Tara lifted her hand and brushed some hair from Willow’s ear.


“Promise me one thing?”


Willow glanced up, her eyes glassy with vulnerability. Tara made sure to keep her gaze.


“Be yourself.”


Tara had no idea of how difficult a question she’d just asked. Willow’s eyes flickered closed and nuzzled into the feeling of fingers brushing her cheek. When the lingering became too intimate, Willow quickly flipped the lid on the box.


“Pizza’s getting cold.”


Willow stuffed a slice into her mouth and Tara nibbled more delicately on hers.


“It never tasted as good when I wasn’t eating it with you.”


Tara hadn’t meant for that to come out as evocative as it sounded, but her lips were still swollen from kissing and she couldn’t help the undertone it produced from them pillowing her words.


Willow downed the glass of Dr. Pepper still sitting there and got up to get the bottle for a refill. Tara watched her go a bit awkwardly and so was prepared on her return. Before Willow could take a seat or pop the cap on her soda, Tara had taken a couch cushion and whacked her with it.


“Hey!” Willow protested, shocked at first.


She stared at Tara for a tense second, then broke out in a grin and lunged for another cushion.


They ran around the room chasing each other with the pillows until they collapsed laughing on the couch. The mood shifted, they put on a movie in the background and talked and laughed through the night, sharing intermittent kisses.


They eventually passed out right there, Tara lying with her feet up on the ottoman and Willow curled up in her lap, though with her face in a more appropriate upward direction.


They slept there the whole night, surrounded by empty bottles of soda, a half-eaten pizza, cookie crumbs and the low buzz of the television.


Willow was the first to stir when she heard muffled banging. She rose from Tara’s lap, not without a little blush, and rubbed her eyes. Her ears picked up on that sound again and she crept over to the window and pulled back the curtain.


Her eyes immediately widened in horror.


“SHIT!”


Tara startled awake.


“What, what?!”


“My parents are home!” Willow screeched, diving around the room to gather the trash.


Tara tried to help but the front door was already opening and Ira and Sheila already had them in their sights.


“Hello Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg,” Tara said with strained sleep still in her voice, “I should… head home.”


She motioned for Willow to call her behind their backs, who nodded discreetly and ran a hand through her bedhead to try and tame it a bit. Tara slipped out with a small wave and a wink, Willow was pretty sure, which did not help her reddening face.


“Mom, dad,” Willow greeted, cringing at the stiffness of their reunion embrace, “I um, I wasn’t expecting you.”


“Clearly,” Sheila replied, arms across her chest, “Is this all you’ve been up to all summer? Lazing around eating junk, not even sleeping in a real bed?”


Willow looked toward the floor.


“I thought you were coming home next week.”


Ira shook his head.


“No, sweetheart, we wanted to be home before you started school. Your senior year is very important,” he said with genuine warmth in his voice, “Oh it’s nice to see you.”


He hugged her again and Willow was able to melt into it for a few moments. His eyes followed the room but he was kind enough to not say anything.


“Well, …what’s new?”


Willow almost laughed; he had no idea.


“Same old Willow.”


She glanced idly at the half-pulled curtain and saw Tara letting herself into her house across the street.


Brand new mess.

Chapter Text


September


It's Hard To Fight These Feelings When It Feels So Hard To Breathe

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Willow watched the read receipt pop up but minutes ticked by with no return message received.

 



Several hours later, Willow sat on her bed in her newly ironed jeans, phone to her ear with a jaded look on her face.

 

“I know. Talk later.”

 

Willow hung up the phone on a rushing-off Buffy and felt like throwing her phone against the wall. She’d blown off Tara to make time for Buffy when she had finally seemed interested and now she was the one being blown off. Again.

 

At least they’d actually got to talk for a few minutes on the phone. It was better than brief chats at the lockers or between classes before Buffy went to hang with her new crowd. Willow still knew nothing about them, though.

 

She didn’t care too much anyway, or at least not as much as she had before. She had a kinda-new thing going on as well. She’d found filling her time with Tara to be a much more enjoyable distraction lately.

 

She pulled up her message log with Tara and stared at the unanswered final message. Her thumbs tapped either side of the screen until she gathered the courage to bring up the keyboard.

 

Willow hesitated as she thought about what she wanted to say.

 

 

 

 

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She rambled on for a moment before getting to the point.

 

 

 

 

 

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She waited anxiously for a response, even more so when those three mocking dots appeared and seemed to animate threateningly in front of her.

 

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Finally, the new message popped up and never had Willow been happier by a lack of words.

 

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She jumped up from the bed and hurried downstairs, swinging out of the handrail.

 

“I’m going out…” she called through the house, continuing under her breath when not even the air moved in response, “Not that anybody cares.”

 

She slid just her house key into the short front pocket and closed the door behind her softly. She hurried across the street, where Tara was waiting at the front door, leaning against the frame. It made Willow’s heart skip a beat just to see her smile.

 

“Hi,” she greeted, holding her hand up and waving, before quickly putting it back down when she realized it looked dumb.

 

Had she always been this awkward around Tara, she wondered? Or was she just more aware of it now?

 

“Hi,” Tara greeted, her eyes giving an extremely subtle once-over to Willow’s body, just a flick downward and then looking back up between her eyelashes.

 

No one would pick up on it, but since Willow had started actually allowing herself to look at Tara, she noticed it every time and it made her blush to her ears.

 

“You look good,” Tara complimented, stepping back against the door to let Willow walk through, “Not quite up there with last Halloween’s outfit, but…I like it.”

 

Tara brought them up to her room, where Willow sat on the chair at the desk and glanced down to hide her even redder face.

 

“Yeah, well, never letting Buffy dress me again. You can undress me,” Willow offered then nearly choked on air, “I mean dress me! With the clothes you make! Design!”

 

The door closed behind them and Tara sat on the edge of her bed, with a few feet between them, kindly pretending Willow hadn’t said what she said.

 

“You guys haven’t been hanging much lately, have you?”

 

Willow just shook her head without looking up.

 

“She’s found more of a…leather mini skirt kinda crowd.”

 

“And you’re still fighting with Xander?” Tara asked sympathetically.

 

Willow shrugged one shoulder.

 

“They’ve all found people who are…exciting to be around. And I’m just… me. Reliable-Dog-Geyser Person.”

 

Tara reached over and caught the edge of the cushioning on the chair. She wheeled Willow over right in front of her and hooked her legs around the base to keep it stable. She slid her hands over Willow’s thighs and leaned in to press a feather-light kiss against her lips.

 

“You excite me more than anything or anyone I’ve ever known,” she whispered, brushing her lips down Willow’s jawline and falling off with a nip just under her ear that would have Willow staying up late every night for the next number of weeks remembering.

 

Tara removed her hands and sat back with a smile as if she hadn’t just released a ball of sexual energy inside Willow.

 

“Do you want to listen to some music I downloaded the other day? It’s fun, two sisters. Guaranteed to put a smile on your face.”

 

You are a guaranteed smile on my face Willow thought as Tara zipped by her and opened her laptop.

 

She closed her legs and stood up, needing to move to break down all of the thoughts and emotions that were just triggered.

 

“How was class?” she asked, very aware of the squeak in her voice.

 

Tara looked over her shoulder and smiled reassuringly as if she just knew it was what Willow needed to calm.

 

“Good. Nate and I ended up doing some impromptu street performance after and made a few bucks. Some people joined us from school and set up across the street, so we had a sing-off.”

 

Willow put her hand in her pocket to toy with the key, just to give her something to do.

 

“Did you win?”

 

“There are no winners, just enjoyment,” Tara answered easily, tapping the space bar once before turning fully to Willow.

 

Music suddenly burst from the speakers and Tara hunched over laughing at the startled look on Willow’s face. She held her hands out for Willow to take.

 

“It’s more fun if you dance to it.”

 

Willow took one hand and Tara immediately pulled her into a twirl. Willow giggled and twirled Tara back and they soon got into the synthpop beat.

 

Holding onto each other’s arms, they swung around together, feet scrambling to move faster and faster.

 

Everything became a blur to Willow except Tara’s beaming face; her vision just a kaleidoscope of Tara’s smile. Willow gasped a soft breath.

 

Everything was so easy when it was just the two of them.

 

“SHUT THE FUCK UP!”

 

Donny’s booming voice and loud fist banging on the shared bedroom wall startled them both, making them both fall flat on their asses. Tara scowled as she stood, tapping the space bar to stop the music, then offered a hand to help Willow up.

 

“I’m sorry he’s such an asshole.”

 

Willow pulled herself up and ended up standing in very close proximity to Tara.

 

“It’s okay,” she said with an audible swallow, her eye line naturally glancing toward Tara’s lips, “The Maclay women make up for it with their beauty and cooking.”

 

“Do you want to come over for lunch tomorrow?” Tara asked with a charming smile, “My mom is baking pies for church and there’s always extra…”

 

Willow’s eyes scrunched up tight. She really didn’t want to piss Tara off again.

 

“I can’t, I’m so sorry. My parents want me to go to some luncheon. I…If I could get out of it, I—”

 

Tara pulled Willow forward softly.

 

“It’s okay. I’m sorry I was short with you earlier,” she apologized, her thumb brushing skin below the hem of Willow’s shirt, “I just miss you when you’re not around.”

 

Willow’s eyelids fluttered at the contact.

 

“I could… ‘help you with some homework’ during the week.”

 

“You could ‘help me with some homework’ right now, study buddy,” Tara offered and brushed her lips against Willow’s.

 

Willow’s eyes glanced furtively toward the door, but she relaxed again when she saw it was firmly closed. She took a step forward, gently pushing Tara along the way until the back of her knees hit the bed. Tara sat down and moved back so she was sitting sideways on the bed, back against the wall. Willow scooted down beside her, purposefully angling herself so she’d be hidden behind the door if it opened.

 

Willow ducked her head in to go for the kiss but paused just shy of Tara’s lips.

 

“You’re not working tomorrow, right?”

 

Tara shook her head, confused. Willow waved it off dismissively.

 

“Shame, I could’ve snuck you into the closet.”

 

She suddenly realized what she said and her face grew pained and guilty.

 

Tara brushed the back of her finger on Willow’s cheek.

 

“It’s okay, Willow. I…” she started, then finished with a sympathetic smile, “It’s okay.”

 

“Why?” Willow croaked out.

 

“Because I like this,” Tara replied, dropping her hand to tickle Willow’s wrist instead, “And I like…you. And I’m not in a rush.”

 

Willow nuzzled her forehead against Tara. Being alone was the only time she felt safe enough to voice her feelings.

 

“I tried to figure out when things changed,” she said quietly, meeting Tara’s gaze from the position of their foreheads touching, “But they didn’t. They just evolved. You were always important to me. It just expanded to include more feelings, more…”

 

Desires

 

“More,” Tara finished for her and Willow looked at her gratefully.

 

She always just knew exactly. The only person with whom Willow felt effortlessly understood.

 

“When I let you closer, I only want you closer,” she said with a heavy sigh, “But…”

 

“But?” Tara prompted softly.

 

Willow met her gaze.

 

“I don’t want to lose you.”

 

Tara lifted Willow’s chin to look directly at her as it tilted downward again.

 

“Willow, I promise. No matter what. No matter how you feel. You won’t lose me. I’m here, however you want me.”

 

Willow felt Tara’s warm breath hit her lips and all she wanted was to know their softness once more.

 

“I want you,” she breathed before closing the kiss.

 

They kissed slowly at first, brushing lips until they were bruised.

 

Tara loved those kisses; when she could feel herself inhaling Willow’s breath on its exhale.

 

She had gone into this prepared to have her heart broken but also ready to resume their friendship at Willow's request. She would cry a lot, privately if Willow called things quits, but not as much as if it broke their bond irreparably. The ball would always be in Willow's court and all Tara could do was hope she wasn't the only one that had her feelings getting stronger and stronger each day.

 

Willow, an eternal ball of contradiction, both hoped that her feelings would go away completely so she didn’t have to deal with them and also that she never stopped feeling as alive as Tara made her feel when they connected. She couldn’t balance the Willow she was with Tara and the Willow she presented to the world.

 

Right now her only solution was to discover an island they could run away to together, alone. Then she might actually be able to embrace this without all her fears of what the world would think of her. While she worked out those logistics, kissing did a pretty good job of keeping her mind off of it.

 

Time passed quickly, as it always did when they were in this position until Willow’s watch beeped on the hour. She glanced down at it.

 

“I guess I should head home.”

 

“Okay,” Tara replied softly, “Text me about that homework?”

 

The evocative upward lilt on the end of that sentence was not lost on Willow, who found her hand squeezing Tara’s thigh.

 

“Maybe I could stay for five more minutes.”

 

Tara didn’t argue against either event and welcomed Willow’s lips back onto hers. Willow’s fingers curled a bit further, pushing her nails against the denim of Tara’s jeans. She felt a little squirm beneath her hand and quickly retracted it, holding it up in a panic.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Tara shook her head.

 

“No, it’s fine, I lik—”

 

The door-handle moved and Willow nearly fell off the bed trying to get some distance.

 

Kimberly walked in, with a warm smile for them both.

 

“Hey girls,” she greeted, folding her arms lightly across her chest and leaning against the door, “Willow are you staying the night?”

 

Willow shook her head furiously.

 

“N-No, Ms. Maclay, I have to get home,” she said, pushing herself up and scrambling out, “Um, bye.”

 

“Bye honey,” Kimberly called after her.

 

“Bye,” Tara echoed, trying not to show her annoyance.

 

Kimberly turned back to Tara and looked at her with concern.

 

“Are you okay, Tara? You look a little flushed,” she said, her brow furrowing, “So did Willow actually. Do you need to open a window in here?”

 

Tara stood up and stayed at the door, politely inviting her mother to leave.

 

“I’ll do that.”

 

Kimberly took the hint and bid her daughter goodnight. Tara leaned back against the closed door, huffed out one breath of frustration, then pushed herself away.

 

She walked past her keyboard and moved a big storage container of old fabric and materials out from under her window so she could reach up to open it.

 

She watched Willow, almost at her house, turn at the sound and lifted her hand to wave out to her.

 

Willow paused, then smiled over her shoulder and waggled her fingers back. It was hard to hide the smile that broke out on her face in front of Tara, though it did dower appropriately as she approached the final steps into her house.

 

“Mom, dad, I’m home,” she called to the barren room.

 

Even when it was occupied, everything was so quiet and solemn.

 

“Willow?”

 

Willow looked up as she hung her keys on the hook, surprised by another voice in the room. Sheila had appeared from her study, a tablet in one hand and a stylus pen in the other. Her face was angled down at the screen.

 

“Yeah, mom?”

 

Sheila looked up, briefly.

 

“Have you been working on your college essay?”

 

Willow held back an eye-roll; it wouldn’t be received well if it was caught.

 

“I was hanging out with Tara, mom. We just listened to music and… stuff.”

 

She hoped her cheeks didn’t color, but Sheila was barely looking at her anyway.

 

“Now is the critical time—”

 

“To get my applications in tip-top shape,” Willow echoed softly, “I know. I am.”

 

Sheila glanced at her, nodded once and turned back toward her study.

 

No goodnight.

 

“Sleep well, dear.”

 

Okay, some goodnight.

 

Willow brushed past and continued on into the kitchen. Ira was standing over the countertop, running a knife through an avocado.

 

“Hey Dad,” Willow greeted, her tone ever-hopeful.

 

Ira looked up with a fond smile.

 

“Oh, Willow, hello my darling,” he said, straightening up his posture, “You’ve caught me making a bit of a midnight snack.”

 

Willow looked at the clock on the microwave.

 

“You’re an hour early.”

 

“Better an hour early than—“

 

“A minute late,” Willow finished with a smile.

 

Ira opened the avocado and shook his head disdainfully.

 

“These blasted things, either hard as rocks or rotten to the core.”

 

Willow walked past him to get to the food cabinet.

 

“There’s a solution to that,” she said, reaching into the back to pull out a jar, which she presented to him, “Eat peanut butter instead.”

 

Ira held Willow against his chest and kissed the top of her head.

 

“Wise to the bone,” he commented, and then released Willow to untwist the lid, “And crunchy too. Smooth peanut butter is for—”

 

“People with no bite,” they finished together, laughing in tune with each other.

 

Willow hurried off to the fridge while Ira peanut-buttered the toast.

 

“Wait ‘til you try this!”

 

She stirred together two glasses of strawberry milk, popped a straw in each and brought them to the table, where Ira followed with the plate of toast. To Willow’s surprise, he didn’t balk at the drink.

 

“My mother used to take my brother and I to get a shake every Friday,” he reminisced happily, “This was my favorite flavor.”

 

Willow smiled over the straw.

 

“It’s my favorite too.”

 

Ira cut the toast diagonally and offered half to Willow. He put a hand on her shoulder blade and then brought his hand down on top of hers across the table.

 

“I missed you this summer, sweetheart.”

 

Willow had a gob full of peanut butter, but her eyes shone as she struggled to get it down with the aid of some strawberry milk.

 

“I missed you too, Dad,” she replied eventually, blushingly wiping her mouth with her sleeve.

 

Ira patted her hand and took his back.

 

“Were you out this evening?”

 

Willow nodded with avoiding eyes.

 

“I went across the street.”

 

“I’m so glad you’re still chummy with that girl. It’s good to know you have someone so close when we’re gone.”

 

“Tara,” Willow said, her face doing that very annoying thing again where it lit up at her mention, which Willow readily tried to conceal, “She, uh, needed help with her homework.”

 

Ira smiled.

 

“Yes, Tara. I remember you put on your little plays together. She seems to have grown into a sweet girl.”

 

Willow pursed her lips together; Tara’s taste still lingering on.

 

Her lips are sweet.

 

“She is…she’s amazing. Goes to that special performing arts school out in Las Brujas. She’s brilliant at music, plays all kinds of instruments and she’s in a band. And she makes things too, like designs them I guess? Altering clothes and making accessories, that kind of thing. I told her she could sell it on eBay if she wanted, I’d help her set it up, but she’s already pretty busy with all her music and other commitments.”

 

Ira looked at her curiously.

 

“You sound quite enamored.”

 

Willow’s eyes widened.

 

Stop it. You’ll give yourself away.

 

Ira didn’t seem to dwell too long though.

 

“It’s lovely to have a friend to look up to. Will she be pursuing music in college? Julliard perhaps?”

 

Willow shook her head.

 

“No, that’s…not her style,” Willow answered, then paused a moment as she considered the next part of her sentence, “She’s always wanted to go backpacking when she graduates.”

 

“Shame to waste such a talent, if it is as you say,” Ira mused.

 

Willow shrugged one shoulder.

 

“She’d say she’d learn more spending a day walking the cobbled streets of Italy than sitting in a classroom.”

 

“What do you say?” Ira prompted.

 

Willow paused again. This was definitely a time she needed to give the ‘expected’ answer.

 

“She should be using her talent to get scholarships and a good education.”

 

Ira patted Willow’s shoulder again.

 

“Your wisdom extends beyond snack choices.”

 

Willow forced a smile and sucked the last of her strawberry milk through the straw.

 

“I guess I’ll go work on my essay.”

 

“Let me know if I can provide any resources,” Ira offered helpfully, before getting up to bring the dishes to the sink.

 

Willow nodded.

 

“Thanks, Dad. ‘Night.”

 

“Goodnight honey,” Ira offered with a departing smile.

 

Willow left the kitchen and went straight upstairs to her bedroom. She went to her desk and diligently read over her college entry essay, making yet more tweaks for the nth time. As the bells of Sunnydale’s many churches struck midnight, she got ready for bed and got under her covers.

 

She thought about reading but didn’t feel like concentrating, so instead used her phone to bring up photos of Tara she had stored on it.

 

The room was dark but for the glow of the screen; but for Willow, Tara’s smile was blinding.

 

She used to think she envied Tara's body before she knew it was an attraction, but some envy still remained: for her smile. That smile brought her joy when it was shared with her and pain when she compared it to her own lack of one.

 

Willow did everything she was supposed to but nothing she did made her radiate happiness like Tara seemed to. She envied Tara’s ability to be happy and everyone still like her.

 

Her biggest struggle was fighting against the belief that her happiness was an indulgence.

 

And that was how Tara’s smile made her soar and knocked her down all in one go.

 

Despite that, there would never be a night where her image wasn’t the last thing she looked at before going to sleep.

 


 

“Willow, fix your collar, it’s sticking out.”

 

Willow caught her mother’s discerningly stern gaze in the rearview mirror from the back seat and immediately set about smoothing out her collar.

 

She quickly checked out her buttons and hemlines to make sure they were neat, but it didn’t stop Sheila doing it again once they exited the car, while Ira was handing the keys off to the valet.

 

Willow was well used to the routine and didn’t fight it. She knew any trip to the country club would involve every facet of her appearance being scrutinized.

 

“And please, Willow, use your napkin when you’re eating. Do not embarrass me in front of Babette Babcock again.”

 

One smudge of cream cheese and I’m branded for life.

 

“Okay, mom.”

 

Sheila finished primping Willow and straightened up.

 

“That shirt looks very well on you.”

 

Willow broke out in a smile.

 

“Thanks, mom.”

 

The three of them headed into the large building, where Willow immediately identified the smell of expensive (though not necessarily pleasant) perfume and newly buffed leather shoes. She’d never really made any friends here; the best thing the place had going for it was its Caesar salad.

 

Ira, upon glancing at Willow’s face, suddenly stopped to pat his pockets.

 

“Oh, I forgot my keys.”

 

Willow guessed he just said that to make her smile, but it worked.

 

“You gave them to the valet, dad.”

 

Ira chuckled at himself and wrapped his arm around Willow in a sidelong hug.

 

“What would I do without you?”

 

Willow leaned into the hug, but suddenly startled when they walked into the restaurant and she saw Tara standing behind the bar with her hair tied up, filling a tray of waters.

 

Being around Tara and other people at the same time was bad, bad, bad.

 

Other people who knew her parents; who included her parents.

 

The very people she most desperately could not reveal her attraction to were just one lingering glance away from figuring out her deep, dark secret. The Chases might even be there. Then everyone really would know.

 

“I, uh…I’m gonna go get water,” Willow said and ran off without waiting for a response.

 

She approached the bar, laying her hands down flat on its surface to stop them from twitching.

 

“I didn’t think you were working today.”

 

Tara looked up and smiled in greeting.

 

“Hey, you. I got called in to cover a shift.”

 

The skin under Willow’s nails grew white as she pressed her fingers deeply against the mahogany wood of the bar. She purposefully angled her gaze upward to stop herself from noticing how hot Tara looked in a waistcoat.

 

“Did you make that?” she asked, nodding to the blue scrunchie in Tara’s hair, adorned with white felt stars, “It’s really pretty.”

 

Danger.

 

“Could I get some extra napkins to stuff in my pockets? I’m extra paranoid,” she added on hastily.

 

Tara ducked down and returned with a stack of them, which she handed across.

 

“Stay away from the cream cheese,” she advised with amusement, “You wouldn’t want to provide more embarrassment to a woman who deals with it every time she has to introduce herself.”

 

A man passed behind them and glanced momentarily at Tara, who adjusted her posture.

 

“Can I get you anything else ma’am?”

 

“Don’t do that,” Willow snapped, stuffing the napkins into her clutch purse, “I hate that.”

 

“It’s my job,” Tara replied quietly.

 

Willow started to respond but suddenly felt an arm around her shoulders, guiding her away.

 

“Come along, Willow,” Sheila instructed, stopping for a moment when she spotted Tara, “Oh hello, Terri. I didn’t realize you worked here.”

 

“It’s Tara,” Willow interrupted, leaving out the ‘you’ve only known her for over a decade’ part.

 

Sheila just smiled pleasantly.

 

“Can you get my husband and I two glasses of seltzer and bring them out to the veranda?”

 

Willow wanted the ground to open up and swallow her. She hated being in this position, but Tara just took it in her stride and smiled right back.

 

“Of course, ma’am. I’ll be right out.”

 

Willow offered a pained look of apology as she was led away, but Tara was already busy fetching glasses from behind the bar.

 

Willow did a round of hellos of her mother’s friends and was eventually told to sit with the eldest son of the Babcocks, Richard Jr. or ‘Dickie’. Dickie seemed just as put out to be seated with her as she was with him.

 

“Great, a ginger,” he murmured under his breath

 

“Great, an asshole,” Willow murmured under hers.

 

Both intended for the other to hear it and shared a look of mutual disdain.

 

Willow would be a legal adult soon, why did she keep putting up with this shit?

 

Thankfully Tara wasn’t long in giving her a reprieve as she brought the water out to her parents and dropped an unasked for, but very much appreciated drink to Willow too.

 

“Half lemonade, half sprite and a dash of grenadine,” Tara announced, already knowing Willow’s favorite, then as she straightened back, spoke quieter into Willow’s ear, “With a cherry on top.”

 

Willow flushed and her companion seemed annoyed to not get any attention.

 

“Hey, get me a coke.”

 

Tara pursed her lips and nodded dutifully before turning on her heels to fetch the drink.

 

“She’s hot,” Dickie as if he had even half a chance.

 

Willow just stood up and moved away, making a half-hearted excuse about going to the bathroom. She crept the long way around, seeing who was around and who wasn’t. Thankfully, there was no sign of Cordelia, so she wouldn’t have to deal with any of those snarky comments until tomorrow when she was back at school.

 

She went into the extravagant restroom and sat on the sofa, using her phone for entertainment. If she was sure her mother wouldn’t walk in, she would have kicked her feet up too, but she resisted.

 

When she’d wasted as much time as she could get away with, she left the bathroom again but found herself being yanked by the arm sideways.

 

“What the—” she exclaimed startled, only to make out Tara’s smiling face in the dim light of the janitor’s closet.

 

“You wanted to sneak into a closet right?” Tara grinned.

 

Willow gulped audibly. Her mouth opened and closed a few times before she finally shook her head to force some clarity to her thoughts.

 

“I’m really sorry,” she said finally.

 

Tara placed her hands on Willow’s bare upper arms.

 

“There was nothing wrong with what you did last night. I was fine with it.”

 

Willow grew crimson and Tara brushing against her skin was not helping.

 

“No, um…my mom. These people. Ordering you around and stuff.”

 

Tara shrugged one shoulder.

 

“It’s my job. It’s no big deal,” she said, gazing softly into Willow’s eyes, “I know you’re not like that.”

 

Willow felt her breath catch at the way Tara was looking at her.

 

“You look very, very pretty today.”

 

Willow felt her chin being tilted up and did not resist as Tara’s lips landed on hers. Tara pulled back and rested their foreheads together.

 

“You taste good too.”

 

Willow pursed her own lips, tasting the cherry chap on them. She just wore it all the time now, always anticipating a kiss might be near.

 

“I like it best when you don’t have anything on them though. You’re sweet enough.”

 

Willow blinked in surprise.

 

Tara liked her when she was just…her.

 

That was something she’d never contemplated. In fact, she’d never actually contemplated why Tara liked her at all.

 

“Why do you—”

 

Suddenly the doorknob turned and the door was pushed in, getting wedged by the mop and bucket sitting against it. Willow jumped back. Another big push on the door removed the obstacle and it opened completely, streaming light in.

 

It was the man from behind the bar earlier, and close-up Willow could clearly see ‘manager’ printed on his nametag.

 

“What’s going on in here?” he asked, eyes narrowing at Tara.

 

“She was just trying to help me find my coat,” Willow blurted, and Tara looked uncomfortable.

 

“This is a janitor’s closet,” the manager replied, obviously disbelieving.

 

Willow looked around like this was a surprise.

 

“Heh, so it is! Silly me!”

 

He held the door open for them, inviting, rather forcefully, for them to step out.

 

“I can help you find your coat, ma’am,” he said cordially, then not quite as much, “Tara, there’s an order waiting to go out in the kitchen. Please wait for me after it’s been delivered.”

 

Tara nodded and left, hanging her head. Willow started to back out the other way.

 

“Uh, you know, now I think about it, I left my coat in the car! Um, thanks!”

 

She went out to the grounds and realized she was on the completely wrong side and had to walk the entire length of the building to get back to the clubhouse. As she got closer she started to rush because she’d been gone awhile and her mother would undoubtedly ask questions.

 

When she got there, everyone was taking their seats for the meal. Sheila beckoned Willow over to their table.

 

“There you are,” she said, her voice clicking slightly, “Can we get Terri to bring us some more waters?”

 

“It’s Tara,” Willow insisted, sitting and folding a napkin in her lap, “And I’m sure someone will be around soon.”

 

Willow nervously glanced around to see if Tara was nearby. She finally caught sight of her in the doorway behind the bar that led back to the manager’s office, handing her nametag over to him.

 

Willow looked on out of the corner of her eye with a sinking feeling in her stomach as she watched Tara being fired and a sinking feeling in her heart that she was doing nothing to stop it.

Chapter Text


October


I'm Sinking Faster And Faster Between Heaven And Disaster

A boy leaned his long frame against a set of lockers, almost standing to its full height.

 

His skin, tawny and warm made his dark eyes draw you into their depths invitingly. His tight black curls sat neatly atop his head and were thick enough to run his hand through, which he often did when engaging in conversation. He was clean-shaven in the mornings but stubble was starting to show by the end of the school day. He would start to rub his chin as the afternoon scratch set in, making him frequently look like he was thinking hard about something.

 

Tara closed her locker door and was not startled to see her friend standing so close.

 

“Nate. Hi,” she greeted with a smile.

 

“Hey birthday girl,” Nate replied, flashing a white smile, “Feel different?”

 

Tara moved away from her locker and Nate fell in step with her. Tara shrugged her shoulder.

 

“Not much has changed.”

 

“You can…pawn something,” Nate suggested playfully.

 

Tara shook her head resolutely.

 

“I don’t own anything worth pawning except my instruments…and they’re not going anywhere.”

 

Nate swung the books in his hands from one side to the other.

 

“Gamble?”

 

Tara shrugged again.

 

“No money either.”

 

“Buy cigarettes?” Nate asked with a desperate tone.

 

Tara’s nose scrunched up.

 

“Gross.”

 

Nate half-sighed, half-laughed.

 

“You’re not going to do anything fun now you’re legally an adult?”

 

“I’m going to go get a free coffee at Calma Beans,” Tara offered as a reasonable alternative.

 

“I thought you liked the coffee at that Espresso place in your hometown,” Nate questioned, bushy eyebrow raised comically.

 

Tara laughed.

 

“I do, but they don’t give it out for free.”

 

“Okay, okay,” Nate agreed, settling back into a soft smile, “Want some company?”

 

Tara nodded.

 

“Sure, but I’m going to a job interview in an hour.”

 

“Sweet,” Nate agreed and threw an arm around Tara’s shoulders to walk them toward the parking lot.

 

He opened the passenger side door of his truck for Tara and helped push her up into it.

 

“Hey shorty,” he grinned as he closed the door over again.

 

He threw his books in the back and hopped in the driver’s side.

 

“You want Calma right? On 9th?” he asked as he buckled up.

 

“9th,” Tara answered. Her interview was just a couple of blocks from there.

 

“9th,” Nate repeated, tapping the wheel as he pulled out of the lot, “How do you think you did on Montrose’s pop quiz? I can read any piece of music you put in front of me but when they start throwing those Greek letters into math I’m out.”

 

“I have a, um, friend, who helps me with math and other homework,” Tara answered, glancing out the window, “We make up songs together.”

 

“You cheatin’ on me?” Nate asked with a smirk and arched eyebrow.

 

Tara just smiled and shook her head.

 

“They’re not real songs, they’re jokey songs. Like ‘letters to the left of me, numbers to the right, here I am, solving quadratics with you’.”

 

Nate laughed.

 

“Hey, it’s good, but I bet you can’t make sweet music like we can.”

 

“It’s just different,” Tara answered cagily, “She’s not a singer, she just likes the fun of it.”

 

“And you?” Nate prompted.

 

Tara smiled again.

 

“I like to see her have fun.”

 

Nate continued to grin cockily as he reached for the radio button.

 

“I’d still kick her butt at a game of radio randomizer.”

 

He fumbled with the stations until he found something he liked.

 

“Yes! You in?”

 

Tara grinned.

 

“I’m in.”

 

Nate tapped out the beat, using his whole body in the seat to feel it.

 

Who me? Not you, oh yes, who's he?
I even dig yo' man's style, but I love yo' profile
Whisper in your ear and get you all shook up
But don't blush, just keep this on the hush

 

Sometimes Nate took on the female vocal, just so Tara would be forced to test herself with the male.

 

Tara closed her eyes and visualized the tempo so she’d be in rhythm when her bar came up.

 

I hope ya not, 'cause your thighs got me hot
Only one plan, that's to rise to the top
I told you before when I first pursued
I want a interlude, in the nude

 

Nate clapped twice, in tune before putting his hands back on the wheel and taking a corner.

 

Tara could only smile; locked in a car with Nate was the only place she felt comfortable enough to sing songs usually outside of her comfort zone, and only because he’d join in if something like Disney songs came on too. There was a loss of inhibitions when you were both willing to embarrass yourself.

 

Plus there was just something about driving along in a car that just made you want to sing along with whatever was playing.

 

He joined back in for his part and they sang the last refrain together.

 

I had to let you know that I got a crush on you!

 

“Yes!” Nate hollered, grinning from ear to ear, “You’re the best white girl rapper I know, you know. I wish you’d do it at a show.”

 

“Just so I can make you look good in comparison,” Tara teased.

 

Nate reached over and placed his hand over Tara’s, engulfing it with the large size of his palm.

 

“You make me look good, but not in comparison. I make the best music of my life with you,” he said sincerely, lingering on Tara’s hand for a moment before taking his back to swing the truck into a parking spot.

 

Tara jumped down a lot easier than she’d climbed in, grabbed her bookbag from where it had been sitting between her legs and held it by the top handle. The lights on the truck flashed as the doors locked and she headed toward the café, where Nate held the door open for her.

 

“Thanks,” she smiled.

 

She wasn’t blind to his attention, but he was like that with everyone. A natural born flirt. And he was right — they did play great music together, so their dynamic worked.

 

She approached the counter and extended her smile for the barista.

 

“Can I get a medium hazelnut Fleetwood Macchiato please?”

 

Before she could redeem her birthday reward, Nate was handing over cash.

 

“Use your free one for the way home,” he said with a wink, “Happy Birthday.”

 

“Thanks, Nate,” Tara repeated and spoke thanks again when the barista offered her a birthday wish.

 

“I’ll get a small Sweet Chai O’ Mine,” Nate said and waited for the drinks while Tara got them a table.

 

After chatting for a few minutes about other things going on at school, Tara noted the way Nate was tapping his hands against the table.

 

“I like that beat.”

 

“I’ve had it in my head all day,” Nate replied, tapping a little more forcefully, “I’m thinking of it as an interlude to that song we wrote last week…”

 

He hummed for a moment before contributing some lyrics off the top of his head.

 

“So, what’s up, what’s up, tonight’s the night, we’re feeling good; Skin on fire, blazing heat, let me show you what you mean to me.”

 

“Oh whoa, oh-whoa-oh-oh…” Tara improvised a harmony with him and he clicked his fingers and nodded enthusiastically.

 

“Yes, you got it. We gotta write that down, that…”

 

He beatboxed the tune again and Tara took out the music notebook in the front pocket of her bookbag to write the notes down.

 

“You’re getting it wrong,” Nate complained, looking over her shoulder.

 

“I am not,” Tara protested.

 

“It’s—”

 

He started beatboxing it again and swiped Tara’s notebook to get it down as he saw fit.

 

“Hey!” Tara exclaimed and snatched it back, heart hammering.

 

She gulped at the surprised look on Nate’s face.

 

“Sorry. Just. It’s my notebook.”

 

Nate nodded, holding his hands up.

 

“Yeah of course. Sorry.”

 

Tara put the notebook down and opened it to an appropriate page, then slid it back across the table.

 

“You can write it how you want it.”

 

Nate declined with a polite smile.

 

“Your writing is prettier than mine anyway.”

 

“Okay, but you have to sing for me,” Tara replied light-heartedly, “I wouldn’t want to get them wrong again.”

 

“Alright, alright, alright,” Nate replied in his best McConaughey.

 

Together they worked out the melody and tried out a few harmonies.

 

Nobody around them paid any attention; most were other students from their school and were well used to it or doing similar themselves.

 

As Tara was packing her notebook away, her phone lit up with an alarm.

 

“Crap! I have to go.”

 

“Want me to drop you off?” Nate offered, already standing.

 

Tara stood and threw her bookbag over her shoulders.

 

“I’m good. See you tomorrow.”

 

“Can you bring your sax?” Nate asked, his fingers running through his hair, “I want to practice for the show this weekend in our free period.”

 

“You know most of them are, um, half-deaf, right?” Tara replied with a grin.

 

Nate shrugged one shoulder.

 

“But they’re full-generous with those delicious butterscotch candies.”

 

“I’ll bring it,” Tara promised, downing the last of her coffee and making a beeline for the door.

 

“Good luck,” Nate called after her, “Hey I never even asked where it—”

 

Tara was already gone, and Nate watched her leave.

 

Tara walked the few blocks to the place of her interview and got her compact mirror out of the side of her bag to tidy herself up. She took off her sweater and stuffed it into her bag then pulled at the hem of her V-neck so it plunged a little deeper at the chest.

 

Finally ready, she opened the door and crossed the threshold with the hope she’d come out employed.



Tara turned the key in the door, but before she could open it, she heard her name being called from behind.

 

“Tara!”

 

Tara looked over her shoulder and her face lit up when she saw Willow jogging past the gate toward her, holding a cupcake with a lit birthday candle in her hands.

 

“Hey. I’ve been keeping an eye out for you.”

 

“I’m sorry, I would’ve let you know I was going to be late today if I’d known,” Tara apologized, shuffling her bag over the shoulder it was hanging off so that it didn’t fall, “I had an interview.”

 

Willow briefly looked guilty.

 

“Yeah?” she prompted unsurely.

 

Tara smiled and nodded.

 

“I got it.”

 

Willow threw one arm around Tara.

 

“That’s amazing!” she exclaimed happily, “Where is it?”

 

“Burger joint in Brujas,” Tara answered shortly, “It’s better hours and easier to get to after school as well.”

 

Willow pulled back from the embrace, cheeks flushing under her smile.

 

“That’s so great, Tara,” she repeated her glee as the guilt of her inaction finally lifted, “I’m still so sorry about what happened at the club.”

 

Tara shrugged.

 

“It’s not your fault. He heard me make that remark about the guest and then got caught in the janitor’s closet ‘fraternizing’ with another. I should have known better, he never liked me. Besides this new place has way better tips.”

 

Willow nodded along and kept Tara’s gaze even after she’d stopped talking. After she realized she was staring, she extended her arms to present the cupcake.

 

“I know your mom probably baked you something delicious but… Happy Birthday,” she said earnestly, producing a lighter and lighting the candle for her, “I picked a special candle.”

 

Tara blew it out and it almost immediately reignited.

 

“See? It’s extra-flamey,” Willow grinned, “Did you make a birthday wish?”

 

Tara’s lips sloped into a half-smile.

 

“She’s standing in front of me.”

 

Tara took a step closer, but after a furtive glance around, Willow stepped back and cleared her throat. Tara rubbed the back of her own neck regretfully.

 

“Sorry,” she said, turning back to finally open the door, “Come upstairs?”

 

Willow nodded and they walked into the house together. It was quiet, but they headed straight for the stairs. Halfway up, Tara reached back for Willow’s hand.

 

Donny’s hungover head popped out from the living room and watched their retreating forms.

 

Upstairs, Tara let Willow into her room, backed up against the door until it was closed and flicked the lock on the door.

 

Willow sank down to perch on the edge of the bed, still holding the candle and its light, flickering away.

 

“Didn’t really anticipate the putting out part.”

 

Tara came and sat next to Willow, then lifted her hand to her mouth and licked the pad of her thumb and index finger. She squeezed the flame through it, which extinguished, leaving just a puff of smoke.

 

Willow gulped. She was sure that was intentional by how slowly Tara had done it.

 

And that was bad news because she was pretty sure she’d only lasted so long into her adolescence without acting on, or acknowledging, her feelings for Tara because Tara wasn’t actively trying to turn her on. Now it was nothing short of torture.

 

“I got you something,” she blurted, “I mean apart from the cupcake. I got you something.”

 

Tara took the cupcake and slid her finger through the frosting, lifting it to her mouth.

 

She wasn’t trying this time but that didn’t stop it affecting Willow greatly.

 

“You did?”

 

Willow stared dumbly for a moment, then shook her head.

 

“Did what?”

 

Tara smiled and Willow’s world lit up. For many years she’d wondered why Tara’s smile always made her feel so happy so instantaneously.

 

Sometimes she wished she could go back to wondering.

 

“You said you got me something, silly.”

 

“Oh!” Willow replied suddenly, “Yeah, uh huh. It’s um…well, I hope you like it.”

 

She slid her hand into her front pocket and produced a small pink pouch. She handed it to Tara shyly.

 

Tara smiled and took it. She held it in her hand and pulled the strings so it opened up. She let the contents fall out and a silver bracelet pooled in her palm. She found the ends and pulled it taut so she could see the charm affixed in the middle. It was an odd shape, a curve on one side with jagged edges on the other, almost like a lima bean.

 

She wasn’t quite sure what it was, that was until Willow pulled up her sleeve and showed Tara she was wearing a matching one.

 

Tara put the shapes together and realized they made a heart.

 

Her breath immediately caught.

 

This was really the most Willow had expressed anything to her outside of whispered nothings and emotive kisses. Tara understood why, completely, and was willing to wait as long as it took. But this symbol meant a lot and she had to hold back tears lest Willow get the wrong idea.

 

“I love it.”

 

“You do?” Willow asked in relief.

 

She worried it might be too childish or something. They’d made friendship bracelets as kids and Willow just wanted to give something more.

 

“I’m glad. I just…” she paused and slid it over Tara’s right wrist, “I wanted to give you something that…”

 

Tara brushed their fingers together.

 

“You know you can talk to me about anything, right?”

 

Willow slowly lifted her gaze to Tara’s.

 

“I’m…scared.”

 

“I know,” Tara replied, softly, sympathetically, “I’m scared of my mom finding out too.”

 

Willow’s eyes closed briefly.

 

“I’m not just scared of my parents. I’m scared of…”

 

The world.

 

It was too much to contemplate. She leaned against Tara’s chest and took comfort from her embrace. Nothing in the world made her feel the way Tara’s arms did. She could have been four years old again every time they closed around her.

 

“You smell like safety and home.”

 

Tara’s hand smoothed out the back of Willow’s hair; fingers curling the ends affectionately. She smiled.

 

“I think it’s just baby powder.”

 

Tara felt Willow’s answering smile against her neck.

 

“No, it’s you.”

 

Tara picked up the cupcake from beside her and dabbed the frosting against Willow’s nose.

 

“Now you smell sweet too.”

 

Willow giggled and tried to retaliate, but Tara twisted away and stuffed the whole thing in her mouth, leaving just the case.

 

“Hey, none for me,” Willow pouted.

 

She crumpled the paper wrapping sadly.

 

“You think I could get in on your mom’s church pies this Sunday instead?” she asked hopefully, “My dad won’t flip his lid if I leave out the church part.”

 

Tara finally swallowed the mass of cake in her mouth and wiped at her lips.

 

“Yes, but you’ll have to come to the nursing home. She’s bringing them there afterward and Nate and I are going to play for the residents.”

 

Willow nodded eagerly.

 

“I love to watch you play.”

 

Tara lay back and drew circles on one of Willow’s hands.

 

“I love…” she started, eyes looking up through her lashes, “To do a lot of things with you.”

 

Willow could see specks of frosting left behind on Tara’s lips and, well, she had missed out on a taste. She climbed up alongside Tara and rested her head on the pillow alongside her. Her eyes glanced between Tara’s eyes and lips before she finally pressed her mouth against Tara’s.

 

She sucked Tara’s bottom lip softly, remembering how she’d learned to do this; remembering the first press of their innocent, awkward lips together and how she got a strange feeling in her stomach and nothing had ever quite been the same ever again.

 

How she’d tried to Resolve Face herself into Definitely Not Wanting This and yet had taken this position each and every time it was offered to her.

 

She wasn’t an addict, she could quit at any time. But since she was definitely In Control, she may as well enjoy it.

 

Her fingers touched Tara’s jaw and upon its natural responsive movement, she teased her tongue into Tara’s mouth.

 

It was just too easy to get lost in a Tara-kiss.

 

Tara lived for these moments because Willow’s kiss was when Tara knew Willow’s heart was right there with her.

 

They kissed until their position lying down so close together was becoming precarious and then suddenly Tara’s door handle slammed down sharply and the door heaved.

 

Willow gasped audibly, her heart suddenly pounding as she anticipated the door opening.

 

“It’s okay, it’s locked,” Tara reassured quietly as she slid down the end of the bed to stand.

 

She fixed her clothes and hair and looked back to Willow for confirmation she looked presentable. Willow looked stunned but managed to nod.

 

Tara unlocked the door and jerked it open, frowning when she saw it was Donny on the other side.

 

“What?”

 

“Why is your door locked?” Donny asked suspiciously.

 

“Because you just barge in all the time,” Tara retorted, gesturing indicatively.

 

Donny sneered at her.

 

“You know you’re 18 now, maybe you’ll finally stop acting like a little princess.”

 

Tara looked down and spoke quietly.

 

“I don’t know why you hate me.”

 

“Because you’re—”

 

Kimberly appeared, coming up the stairs with a weary look on her face.

 

“Could we get a break from this for one day?” she requested them both, then focused her gaze on Donny, “It’s your sister’s birthday.”

 

Donny stormed off, flipping them the bird on the way.

 

“It’s always her something,” he muttered before his door slamming reverberated throughout the whole upper level of the house.

 

Kimberly massaged her temples for a moment and took a steady breath. She hated to think he had his father’s temper. She really hoped her nurture won out on his nature, but Donny was a very angry man and truthfully Kimberly was a bit afraid of how far she could push him.

 

She looked back to Tara and placed a hand on each shoulder, looking at her daughter and wondering how she got to be in this position; Tara was a little girl singing into a plastic microphone only yesterday, or so it seemed.

 

“Happy Birthday, my darling,” she said, kissing Tara squarely on the forehead, “I’m so sorry I couldn’t be here when you woke up. Have you had a good day?”

 

Tara smiled and nodded.

 

“Nate and I got to write, and I got the job.”

 

Kimberly cupped Tara’s face in her hands.

 

“Oh honey, I’m glad. I know you were worried about starting to save again.”

 

“Yeah, I’m really happy. I should be doing pretty well by the summer,” Tara replied, pleased, “I should get good tips too.”

 

Willow appeared in the doorway, pulling awkwardly at the ends of her sleeves.

 

“Um, I’m gonna go.”

 

“Oh Willow, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here,” Kimberly said, offering a smile.

 

“She came over to say Happy Birthday,” Tara covered quickly, “And um, she was going to tag along on Sunday if that’s okay.”

 

“Of course,” Kimberly nodded, “We’d love to have you.”

 

Willow nodded and caught Tara’s gaze.

 

“Happy Birthday, Tara,” she said for Kimberly’s sake, her eyes sending the true message.

 

“Thank you,” Tara replied in much the same way, “I’ll text you later.”

 

Willow smiled, waved with her fingers and went down the stairs and out the door. Kimberly put her arm around Tara’s shoulders and brought her in the same direction, veering off into the living room.

 

“You know your main gift will be presented later,” she said, almost skipping over to the coffee table where something large and bulky was covered with sheets of wrapping paper, awkwardly stuck down in places, “But I had to mark my little girl’s journey into adulthood.”

 

“Mom,” Tara chided gently.

 

“Just open it,” Kimberly replied giddily.

 

Tara wasn’t sure the best way to unwrap the object, so tore from the middle down until it was sitting in a pool of its own wrapping.

 

“It’s second hand, but it works a charm,” Kimberly said, a hint of nervousness in her voice.

 

Tara’s eyes move from awe to joy to delight in the space of a few seconds. She turned and threw her arms around her mother.

 

“Thank you so much!”

 

Kimberly returned the hug, a little tighter than normal. It had meant a few extra night shifts to cover the cost of a decent sewing machine for Tara, but that hug made it all worth it. She kissed the top of her daughter’s head.

 

“No more staying up until 2 am with that little needle and thread.”

 

Tara pulled back and looked at her mother cynically.

 

“You can’t tell me what to do, I’m 18 now.”

 

Kimberly shook her head, pained; some real, some exaggerated.

 

“Don’t you start that too or I’ll call you my little girl in front of your friends.”

 

Tara tucked her head under Kimberly’s chin.

 

“Don’t worry, I’m never going to be like him.”

 

Her eyes threw themselves upward and though Kimberly couldn't see it, she knew who that inflection belonged to.

 

“You were great pals when you were babies, you know. Everything changed when we…moved.”

 

“It’s not my fault Dad ran out on us,” Tara replied, exhaling sharply through her nose, “He can’t blame me.”

 

Kimberly patted Tara’s back twice and released her.

 

“Let’s not darken this day. I came home at lunch and made your cake, did you see it?”

 

Tara shook her head and followed her mother into the kitchen, her only concern now about how quickly she could put together some new band shirts.



“You didn’t have to wear a shirt.”

 

Willow ran her fingers over the lettering on the front of the shirt, spelling out ‘Insect Reflection’ with an image of a beady-eyed ant looking in the mirror.

 

“I like it. I get to be your groupie.”

 

Tara’s hand slid across the wall they were sitting on to cover Willow’s hand.

 

“You’re much more than that.”

 

Willow quickly lifted her hand and scratched the side of her nose.

 

“You, um, did a really good job. I love the eyes.”

 

“Thanks, I had fun,” Tara replied, taking her hand back from the encounter and running it along the side of her saxophone case, sitting between her legs, “Of course now I’m the go-to for fixing socks and stuff too. I drew the line at Donny’s underwear.”

 

Willow’s face scrunched up and Tara nodded.

 

“Yeah, exactly.”

 

Tara’s phone buzzed in her pocket and she took it out to read the text.

 

“My mom got held up, are you okay if we bike it?”

 

Willow glanced down at the case between Tara’s knees.

 

“Will your sax be okay?”

 

“Yeah, it’ll fit on the rack,” Tara said, jumping down from the wall and hiking her case over her shoulder.

 

Willow planted her feet on the ground and together they walked over to Willow’s driveway. Tara kept her bike there too, just to make it a little more difficult for Donny to interfere with it.

 

Tara secured her case to the back of her bike and they set off together. It was only a couple of miles to the care home Kimberly was a nurse at, and on a Sunday morning, the roads were pretty clear.

 

It was a bright day and a beautiful ride passing through the autumnal landscape of the Sunnydale country roads. The trees were still in their twilight of being fully dressed with their changing-color leaves thick on their branches.

 

The sun was shining, and Willow knew this primarily because of how the shine caught Tara’s face.

 

Tara would look up when they hit a sunny patch and let it radiate her face, casting a glow on her honey-colored hair. She looked positively beautiful and Willow was awestruck.

 

The part of her brain that needed to be focusing on cycling was momentarily taken over, causing her to skid off the road and fall under her bike.

 

“Willow!”

 

“Yeah?” Willow asked dumbly, responding before she could even realize what had happened.

 

Tara abandoned her bike on the dirt and threw herself down beside Willow, tossing the bike off her.

 

“It’s okay, baby, don’t move.”

 

Willow realized she was on the ground when she felt the gravel grazing her palms.

 

“I’m okay…” she said, wincing as she pulled herself up on her elbows.

 

Tara checked Willow’s head, making sure she wasn’t bleeding.

 

“Did you go over on a rock?”

 

Willow looked up at Tara and found herself in the same predicament that had gotten her into this situation in the first place. She averted her gaze and hoped desperately her genetic predisposition to blushing was not giving her away this time.

 

“Heh, yeah, must have.”

 

“Should I call an ambulance?” Tara asked with concern.

 

Willow shook her head definitively.

 

“No way, I’m fine. I want to see you play.”

 

She glanced at her shoulder, where there was a small rip in the fabric of her t-shirt. She smiled softly at Tara.

 

“Makes it look cooler.”

 

Tara returned the smile and briefly brushed some hair away from Willow’s brow. She was careful not to linger so as not to make Willow uncomfortable, but to her surprise, Willow leaned in and hugged her.

 

“You’re okay,” Tara reassured in her ear, “I’ll get my mom to look you over when we get there.”

 

Willow just nodded and let Tara help her up and brush herself off.

 

“Let’s walk the rest of the way,” Tara suggested, hoisting her bike up to wheel alongside her, “Are you okay to walk? It’s not far from here.”

 

“I can walk,” Willow confirmed, “Really, I’m fine. I’m pretty used to falling over.”

 

Tara aimed a wistful smile at the ground as they set off along the side of the road, on foot.

 

“Remember when we did Yabba and Dabba Doo Superheroes and you tripped over your cape?”

 

“You mean the pillowcase I stuck in the back of my shirt?” Willow asked incredulously, “I ended up inside the thing!”

 

They laughed together and Willow kept her gaze on Tara for a few moments, thinking about all of the time they’d spent together; all of the experiences they’d shared.

 

“When did you know?” she semi-blurted, the words coming out as her mind wondered.

 

Tara didn’t pretend she didn’t know what Willow was talking about. She pushed her bike in silence for a moment.

 

“That’s a multi-layered question.”

 

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to,” Willow replied quickly.

 

Tara just shook her head and didn’t rush her response.

 

“I always knew I never liked boys the way other people liked boys,” she answered finally, smiling almost sadly, “I would get jealous when you talked about Xander and for a long time I thought that was because I was jealous that you had a boy you liked and could talk about and be normal.”

 

Willow looked down guiltily but Tara was still speaking and didn’t notice.

 

“I spoke to some people online, the ones without depressing spelling. They recommended some… relevant media to watch, and I did.”

 

Willow looked up with wide eyes.

 

“Like…porn?”

 

Tara could only laugh.

 

“No, like movies and TV shows and stuff.”

 

Willow seemed relieved and embarrassed all at once, but Tara didn’t let her off the hook.

 

“The porn out there is not…good.”

 

The grip Willow had on the handlebar tightened as she tried desperately not to imagine Tara watching porn, or more specifically what she might be doing while watching it. That was a ‘no, no’ thought if ever there was one.

 

Thankfully Tara seemed to think she’d tortured her enough and continued her story.

 

“I watched what I could…at first it seemed overwhelming but it was good because the people ‘in the know’ told me what was a good portrayal or a bad portrayal…gave me a narrowed-down list to watch and see what I thought.”

 

Willow turned her head, noting how lightly Tara talked about what for her held her heart so heavily.

 

“And what did you think?”

 

Tara smiled and that sun betrayed Willow again, cursing her with falling in love.

 

“I thought it was like opening my eyes after being underwater. It gave me a picture of what my life could be like and I realized it fit the way I felt myself being happiest. I…recognized myself.”

 

Willow stared pensively at her feet for several moments.

 

“I don't know who I am,” she said finally, so soft only Tara and the trees could hear, “I only know who everyone else wants me to be.”

 

Tara placed her palm under Willow’s shoulder blade so she would look up.

 

“I just want you to be happy,” she said as their gazes met, “And that’s how I knew I liked you. Because I wanted you to be happy even if it broke my heart.”

 

Willow’s heart began to thud and staring into Tara’s eyes seemed like the only important thing in the world at that moment.

 

I recognized myself.

 

“Hey!”

 

Willow felt like she was pulled from a dream as a male voice broke their silence with the sound of tires screeching.

 

Nate had pedaled past them and spun around on a brake to face them. His guitar case was strapped over his chest and held on his back and he was greeting them with a pleasant smile, oblivious to the moment he’d interrupted.

 

“Why aren’t you riding?”

 

Willow began to shrink in on herself but Tara took the heat.

 

“My chain was getting stuck.”

 

“Want me to take a look?” Nate asked, and Tara quickly shook her head.

 

“I can fix it later. We better get to the home.”

 

The three of them picked up the pace and made it to the elderly care home in just a few minutes. Willow went to the bathroom when they arrived, needing a moment after the unexpectedly deep conversation of their journey. Tara went to set up with Nate but jumped down when she saw her mother bring in a stack of pies into the rec room they were set to play in.

 

“Hello, sweetheart,” Kimberly greeted, “Sorry I couldn’t collect you guys.”

 

“It’s fine,” Tara replied easily, “But, um, Willow fell off her bike on the way, could you check her out? Discreetly?”

 

Kimberly nodded knowingly and Tara returned to the two stools that essentially made the ‘stage’ for them. There was no AV equipment or anything to set up like when they played clubs or events but Nate was always professional and liked to make sure everything was perfect no matter the audience so it was always a little while until they were ready to play. Tara busied readying her mouthpiece while Nate checked the tuning of his guitar.

 

Kimberly spotted Willow come through and hang back in the doorway. She caught her eye. She motioned for Willow to come over and led her back to a private treatment room.

 

“Do you need some help with something?” Willow asked, hands in her pockets but genuinely offering.

 

Kimberly tapped the examination table.

 

“Sit up.”

 

Willow just nodded and sat up. Kimberly went through a few cognitive tests and checked her over for bruising or tenderness.

 

“What happened? Did the sun blind you?”

 

“Something like that,” Willow replied absently.

 

Kimberly took her gloves off and tossed them.

 

“I think a bruised ego more than anything else, hmm?”

 

Willow blushed.

 

“Yeah, I think so.”

 

“I’m betting nothing a slice of peach cobbler can’t cure,” Kimberly replied with a wink, then ran her thumb over the rip in the shoulder of her t-shirt, “You’ll have to get Tara to fix this.”

 

“No way, it’s punk Ms. Maclay,” Willow said with a grin.

 

Kimberly laughed.

 

“I thought punk was in my day,” she said, shaking her head to herself, “Punk was how I got pregnant. Take every precaution.”

 

Willow pressed her hands into the table to give her the leverage to jump down.

 

“Not on my radar.”

 

The sound of a few guitar strings floated down the corridor.

 

“Sounds like they’re starting,” Kimberly said, opening the door for Willow.

 

“Thanks, Ms. Maclay,” Willow answered politely, “Can I help you serve the pies?”

 

“I’d appreciate that,” Kimberly smiled, “And I’ll make sure to save a big slice for you.”

 

They walked back into the recreation room and behind the little table where Kimberly had left the pies. She began slicing them and Willow would put them on a paper plate and bring them around to the residents watching Tara and Nate play.

 

Willow liked to sneak a peek whenever she could too. Tara was always so graceful on the sax and the songs they sang for this crowd were always so soft and ethereal.

 

Give Tara another one of those sun halos and Willow would easily believe she was an angel incarnate.

 

Nate started to strum some Elvis and it was a joyful sight when some of the residents got up to slow (very slow) dance together.

 

Willow watched Tara carry the tune to the room, smiling at Nate as he accompanied her.

 

“But I can’t help, falling in love with you…”

 

Nate harmonized and it felt like a punch in the gut for Willow. She’d always loved listening to Elvis and heard that song often. But now she paired it to her situation and couldn’t feel the same rush the song was meant to impart. She wished desperately to be able to help falling in love.

 

It was intimate to watch them together like that, to watch them open to each other and allow themselves to create together. Their connection was so raw and public and everything Willow never allowed herself to give in to.

 

She was surprised at the intensity by which the jealousy hit her.

 

And then Tara found her in the crowd and smiled, and it was a smile just for her. It punched her gut in another way that was even more intense and scarier. She was often so busy worrying about what everyone else would think if they knew, she didn’t see their connection pummeling her so powerfully.

 

She had to look away and scooted around the room with her head down, collecting paper plates before excusing herself to the bathroom again. There had been so much face-splashing lately, she thought she might wash away entirely. At least then she wouldn’t have so much inner turmoil twisting her up inside.

 

She sat on the steps at the front door for a long stretch of time before she saw someone sit beside her.

 

“There you are,” Tara smiled and again Willow felt her belly jump.

 

It was amazing how the absence of people suddenly made her bodily reactions feel good.

 

“You okay?”

 

Willow could only nod silently, but Tara’s face remained sympathetic.

 

“Does this place remind you of your Bubbe and Zayde?”

 

Willow neither confirmed nor denied, so Tara assumed and gave her a hug.

 

Willow closed it and the sun bathed them together.

 

And how could any of this be wrong when it felt so, so right?

 

They stood together when Nate came out, guitar on his back and hopped onto his bike.

 

“Great set, Tare, see you at school!”

 

“Bye,” Tara called after him as he sped away, “Mom said we can put our bikes on the car and get a ride with her.”

 

“Great,” Willow agreed and they went to wait at the car.

 

Kimberly came out and they loaded up and set off for home. Tara sat in the back with her sax and Willow took the front with Tara’s mother.

 

“That Nathanial boy grows more every time I see him,” Kimberly commented airily as they drove, “He’s very nice. Sweet. He always looks so thoughtful. And a great musician to boot.”

 

“You’re worse than the grandmothers in the home,” Tara replied wryly.

 

“I’m just saying, he’s nice,” Kimberly replied with a single definitive nod, catching Tara’s eye in the rearview mirror, “A lot nicer than the boys I was dating at your age.”

 

“You had two kids at my age,” Tara shot back.

 

“I’m aware,” Kimberly replied with a sigh, “I’ve been very pleased that you’ve chosen to focus on your music instead of boys during high school. But if you like—”

 

“I don’t,” Tara interjected quickly and sternly.

 

“Okay, okay,” Kimberly replied defensively, putting up two fingers on the wheel in place of her hands, “What about you Willow? Or do you already have a new guy?”

 

Willow looked immediately caught out.

 

“No. No new…guy,” she said with a nervous chuckle, “I’m um, focusing on getting into a good college.”

 

Kimberly’s eyebrow arched.

 

“I guess there’s no convincing my girl of the same?”

 

Willow very briefly glanced to the back seat.

 

“I’ve never known Tara not to know her own mind.”

 

Kimberly smiled at her.

 

“That is very true, Willow, and I wouldn’t have her any other way.”

 

“I’d have her lots of ways,” Willow replied automatically, which was immediately followed with a sharp inhalation of breath, “I-I mean, I, i—I would, I would have her any way she is because she’s Tara, she’s always been Tara, always been there so yes, however she um, is, is what I will have. Yes.”

 

Kimberly just nodded and Willow used the mirror to look into the backseat.

 

Tara winked and Willow flushed to the very root of her being.

 

Stop, she thought, stop, stop, stop.

 

With a heavy heart, she looked out the window sadly.

 

The full trees didn’t seem quite as beautiful as before, but deceptive.

 

The leaves would die, it was what they were supposed to do, and nothing she could do would stop it.

 

She closed her eyes so the tear threatening to fall wouldn’t, remembering that one aching line that her brain had turned so bitter.

 

But I can’t help falling in love with you…


Zoom in (real dimensions: 2000 x 2157)Image

 

Chapter Text


November


If I Lay Here
If I Just Lay Here
Would You Lie With Me And Just Forget The World?



Willow pulled her boots over her calves and checked out her outfit in the mirror.


It was the one day a year her mother didn’t harass her about what she was wearing to a family dinner, because it wasn’t with her family. It was with Tara’s.


Willow had always had Thanksgiving with Tara’s family, mostly to get away from her mother ranting about it representing the destruction of the indigenous peoples.


She didn’t disagree, at all, but did it really matter if she shared some mashed potatoes with Tara’s family? If you took out Donny’s scowling and purposefully making a mountain of cream on his dessert just so Tara couldn’t have any on hers, it was everything Willow wanted for a warm, familial engagement. Good food, thankful reflection and a bubble fight with Tara whilst they did the washing up.


She opened her nightstand drawer and took out something she’d brought especially for Tara and the wrapped candle she always got for for Ms. Maclay for inviting her over. Donny got nothing but her contempt.


She slowly crept downstairs, avoiding the creaky step and holding the candle away from her body so the plastic didn’t crackle. A dash across the floor would see her home free without enduring a lecture on the consequences of enjoying some pie.


Just a few more steps and she’d—


“Willow—”


Willow looked like she’d been poked with a hot iron as she bolted for and out the door.


“Sorry, already late, bye!”


She didn’t wait to see if the door opened again as she skipped over to the Maclay house. It was a nice day, despite winter looming; the kind of day she and Tara would have often gone to hang out in their overgrown park, but they didn’t go there anymore. Their respective bedrooms had become havens to their secret but it boxed them in at the same time.


Willow liked the control.


Tara just liked any space with Willow in it.


She knocked on the door and Donny answered, or rather unlocked it and walked away, leaving Willow to let herself in. This wasn’t uncommon; at least he answered it at all. She walked through the house to the kitchen in the back and was greeted by two similar Maclay smiles.


“Hi honey,” Kimberly greeted, from where she was standing over a bowl, making pastry.


“Hi honey,” Tara echoed in a way that sounded like she was mocking her mother, but Willow knew was sincere.


She had to try not to blush as her erratic teenage mind floated the idea that the potatoes Tara was handling would be put to much better use handling something else.


“I got you a candle, Ms. Maclay,” she squeaked out, thrusting it forward.


“Oh, that’s lovely, Willow,” Kimberly replied, holding her hands up for a moment to show they were covered in butter, “We’ll put it in the centerpiece.”


Willow left the candle on the small circular table that sat in front of the sliding door leading out to the back porch. Many summer days had been spent with them running around in their swimsuits spraying each other with the hose and running inside soaking wet to share sandwiches and cut up strawberries.


She approached Tara.


“I got you something too,” she said, opening her jacket like she was hiding drugs, where she produced a can of whipped cream, “Extra whip for the pumpkin pie.”


“Quick, hide it before the Demon Barker of Bleak Street gets a hold of it,” Tara replied with a smile, that special smile that only Willow could elicit.


Willow giggled but Kimberly just sighed heavily.


“Tara, don’t call your brother names.”


“Because he’s been so helpful today preparing dinner?” Tara asked, her tone only hinting at sarcasm despite the overt nature of what she said. Her mother treated her with enough respect for her to give it back, but this was a sore point.


Kimberly rolled up her ball of dough and placed it in the refrigerator.


“Do you two want to set the table for me?” she asked, purposefully moving on.


Tara washed her hands of potato peelings, dried them and held a hand out for the cream.


“I’ll go hide that.”


Their fingers brushed as it passed hands and Willow ducked her head before she could see Tara hold back a shiver. Tara disappeared for a few minutes, upstairs to her bedroom, and when she returned she joined Willow in the dining room. She closed the door leading from the kitchen behind her, enclosing them in the room.


Willow looked up as the door clicked and her breath caught. She’d literally watched Tara grow into the woman she was but it still stunned her just how beautiful she was. Especially since she started to recognize the look Tara returned; that dark look in her eye and the way her lips would purse a little in her direction.


Dark eyes, pink lips Willow thought, feeling the familiar thud in her chest Tara always evoked Now my heart is racing.


Willow had compared herself to almost every other girl in her life growing up, but never Tara. Tara just held her admiration in so many different ways, and in so many different forms over the years, but always constant. Even when it scared her, she couldn’t turn it off.


She needed Tara to know that, to know all of the things she was too scared to say, sometimes even to herself. Her arms opened and Tara fell into them in a couple of strides, holding on tight.


“I needed that,” she sighed into Willow’s ear.


For a whole second, Willow felt no fear and just the swarm of happy emotions of knowing Tara needed her too.


The other door, the one leading into the living room, opened then and the sounds of football on the TV interrupted them. Willow quickly stepped away and went back to folding napkins while Donny’s eyes darted around the room.


“Where’s the cooler?” he barked, then got aggravated when Tara shrugged, “I left it in here!”


“Don’t yell at her!” Willow piped up automatically and had to try not to shrink when Donny glared at her.


“What’s it to you anyway?”


The kitchen door swung open and Kimberly stood there, red from the heat of the kitchen and tense from overhearing the hollering.


“Please,” she said, lips thin and voiced strained, “One. Day. Is all I ask. One. Day.”


“She hid my cooler!” Donny protested.


Kimberly gestured back toward the kitchen.


“I put it on the back step, I kept tripping over it,” she lied. She’d just hoped it might slow down his slinging of the beers.


Donny brushed past and they heard bottles knocking together moments later. Kimberly ran her hands over her apron and put on her smile again. Fake it ‘til you make it; it had gotten her this far.


“You girls are doing a lovely job. The table looks great.”


Tara glanced at the barely-dressed table that had nothing but placemats and scattered silverware, but just nodded politely.


“The worst thing to happen to this household is all the bars in town being closed,” she commented bitterly when they were alone again.


“Why doesn’t your mom just kick him out?” Willow asked, shaking her head. It made her so mad how badly he treated his mother and sister. She didn’t even know how they could come from the same family, but he’d been the same ball of anger and disdain for as long as she’d known him.


“Who knows?” Tara brushed off and Willow dropped it.


She started to gather the silverware and arrange it properly.


“Buffy texted me,” she said after a minute or two.


“Yeah?” Tara asked, a pleased smile gracing her face as she knew the friendship had been on the rocks.


Willow’s smile wasn’t quite as big.


“Yeah, just to complain about her mom going out of town or something.”


“For Thanksgiving?” Tara asked sadly, and received a nod, “You could have invited her here, my mom wouldn’t have minded.”


Willow looked down and shrugged one shoulder.


“She has her new crowd. I don’t even see her much in school anymore, I think she’s cutting or coming in late or something. Last time she was just asking to copy my homework.”


Tara let her hand stoke across the edge of the table, smoothing out the tablecloth.


“It’s funny, I’ve never really met her,” she said after a moment, an unintentional lilt in her voice as she tried to sound neutral about it all, “She’s been your friend for a couple of years. Only ever waved across the street. A-and Xander. I mean, uh, they don't even know I exist, right? I know all about them, but…”


Willow’s shoulders tensed but she worked not to make it show up in her voice.


“Hey…”


Tara ducked her head.


“I-I mean, t-that's totally cool. It-it's good. It-it's better.”


Willow was starting to feel very uncomfortable.


“I’ve never met your school friends.”


“You know Nate,” Tara countered quietly, “I’m friendly with some other people…you can meet them if you want. I’ll borrow the car, bring you over to Brujas some evening. There’s a café we hang out at, play music sometimes in the evenings. It’s like The Bronze but less…rowdy. They do music puns with the coffee, you’d like it. I’ll buy you a Macklemocha.”


Willow felt like she was in a bubble that was being threatened with a big needle, ready to burst it at any moment. She dropped her hand and looked at Tara.


“Tara, it's not like I don't want my friends to know you. It's just… well, Buffy's like my best friend, my other best friend and she's really special. And there's this whole bunch of us, and we sort of have this group thing that revolves around school, and-and I, I really want you to meet them. But I kind of like having something that's just, you know, mine. And I, I usually don't use so many words to say stuff that little, but do you get that at all?”


Tara inhaled softly.


“I do.”


She glanced down at the half-heart hanging from her wrist. She rubbed her thumb over it for a moment before looking up again, where Willow had gone back to the silverware. Willow had said something similar before, the night they ‘first’ kissed. Did Willow even know it was true?


She watched Willow move back to folding napkins and raised her head a little.


“I am, you know.”


“What?” Willow asked, without looking up.


Tara breathed the word so softly it was almost inaudible.


“Yours.”


Willow paused everything and she thought even her heart might have stopped for a beat. But in that room, with just themselves and the whole world locked behind two closed doors, she let herself react without fear and the smile bloomed on her face.


She spent so long paranoid that people would spot her feelings, she never appreciated how they were returned.


She strode across and kissed Tara square on the mouth for several long seconds.


She parted with a smile but her eyes started to crease.


“Why do you like me?” she asked, perplexed.


“Because you’re wonderful,” Tara answered as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.


Because to her, it was.


That was too much for Willow to believe; too much responsibility; too acknowledging of a question she wished she hadn’t asked.


“I, um, need to use the bathroom.”


Tara just smiled and nodded.


“Sure.”


Patience.


She sometimes felt cursed with falling in love with her best friend but figured she was already ahead of the curve by having some of the feelings returned. So patience was her friend. Only Willow could figure out what she truly wanted and either way, Tara was at the end of the road as a friend or a lover.


All she could do was try to make the journey as smooth as possible and make sure she didn’t influence the direction.


Sometimes love meant holding in your pain while they worked through theirs. You have to trust they’ll be there when it’s your turn.


Tara trusted.


More than anything in this world, she trusted Willow. And so she took in a deep breath, remembered that smile that had lit up Willow’s face and trusted that one day Willow would allow herself to embrace those emotions for more than minutes at a time.


Patience.


And maybe she would write a broody song or two to let out those feelings.


A make-out session didn’t hurt either. Or a quiet night in with herself under the covers.


“The goddamn TV shut off! I was watching the game!”


She put her hand behind her neck and rolled it.


Deep breath.


Patience.


She opened the door to the living room but Willow was already coming down from the stairs.


“I’ll fix it.”


Tara mouthed ‘thank you’ and returned to the affix Willow’s candle to the centerpiece; a circle of popsicle stick turkeys from throughout their early years. When Willow came over for the second year, Kimberly had had her do one to add to it.


It hadn’t been the first time a piece of Willow’s art had been kept, but it was the first time it had been used for decoration and not student analysis.


This sense of belonging had made it so easy to dismiss her feelings for Tara through adolescence. It was only when she became such good friends with Buffy that she started to realize things were not as they seemed.


But then, she’d always known.


Tara was different.


Tara was…her secret.


Willow glanced sideways as Tara retreated, still feeling the sting of the cold water she’d splashed on her face. Maybe they could still run away to that island together…


She got the TV fixed up and joined the other two women in the kitchen to help with whatever needed chopping or stirring or basting. She would do whatever was asked; this was the one day a year she felt part of a real family.


Finally, when everything was served up, Donny carved the turkey in such a way that made him seem pained for having to move off the couch but also that he’d stab you with the knife if you tried to take over for him.


He then sat and grudgingly waited for Kimberly to say a quick blessing and for everyone to say what they were thankful for.


“I’m thankful for my children, my home, my job and security, and to know such an exceptional young person like you, Willow,” Kimberly said, her same mantra every year.


“I’m thankful to be sitting around this table, with all of you,” Willow replied in much the same way.


Donny mumbled something about his bike and all eyes fell to Tara to finish them off and let them eat. Tara paused for a moment before speaking.


“I am thankful for the serenity of faith in those I hold dear,” she said, passing a discreet, crooked smile across the table to Willow, “And for the belief that the path of my destiny is clear.”


Willow’s brow creased thoughtfully and Kimberly laughed as she picked up the bowl of mashed potatoes to hand around.


“Never compete with a songwriter,” she said wryly, “Dig in everyone. So, Willow, have you all of your college applications submitted? Still thinking of Harvey Mudd?”


Willow’s gaze was broken and she glanced in Kimberly’s direction.


“Yes, ma’am,” she answered, taking the potatoes and sliding them toward Donny, “Hoping for Early Decision. I did okay in my SATs last year—”


“Top marks,” Tara interrupted in an undeniably proud tone.


Willow blushed and Kimberly patted her on the back.


“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”


“Thanks, Ms. Maclay,” Willow smiled, “And thank you for this dinner, it’s so good. Sure beats microwaved turkey bacon.”


After dinner, they sent Kimberly off to relax and started clearing up. It was a tradition now, and they usually worked it so most of the washing up was done before the meal was even served and they had more time to kid around together.


As Willow finished wiping down the table, Tara poked her head in, holding a plate in both hands with a slice of pie resting on each. She jerked her head toward the stairs, and Willow hung the cloth on the back of the nearest chair and followed.


They went up to Tara’s bedroom, closed the door behind them and sat cross-legged on the floor with their pie in their laps.


“Wait,” Tara instructed and reached under her pillow to pull out the bottle of cream she’d hidden there earlier.


“Sneaky dessert is the best dessert,” Willow giggled.


Tara made a mini-mountain on top of Willow’s pie.


“Oh, you have something…” she said to Willow, generally gesturing toward her face.


Willow’s hands flew to her face in horror; this situation could range from broccoli in the teeth to booger in the nose and until she knew she was at DEFCON 1.


“Where?”


“There,” Tara pointed randomly again, “Right…there.”


She squeezed the can so a torrent of cream sprayed over Willow’s nose.


“Hey!” Willow said in shock, as cream dripped from her nose onto her pie.


She stared, still, for a moment, then pushed their plates away and lunged at Tara.


“I will so get you back!”


She smushed her face against Tara’s so the cream transferred against her nose and mouth. Tara giggled and only pretended to fight it.


Eventually, she gave up the guise completely, taking Willow’s face in her hands and kissing her. There was a mess of sticky cream melting into their skin and seeping into their kiss but it didn’t deter their lips from seeking each other out.


Only when their skin was literally sticking together and impeding movement did Tara get up to pluck a couple of make-up wipes from the pack sitting on her nightstand.


She handed Willow one and sat on the bed to wipe her own face.


“Wanna know a secret?” she asked as she folded the wipe up and tossed it in the trash.


Willow felt like she had enough secrets going on, but nodded anyway. Tara pulled out the second drawer of her nightstand and pulled out a clear plastic folder. She handed it to Willow, who took it, confused. When Tara didn’t explain, Willow opened and took out the paperwork inside. Her eyes grew wide as she saw what she was reading.


“You did the SATs?” she asked, a gasping lilt in her voice emphasizing her surprise, “You got 1360! 610 math, 750 English!!”


“Don’t sound so surprised,” Tara replied, pulling at her sleeve, “I do write a lot.”


Willow looked up quickly.


“No, no! I just…why? I didn’t think you were…I mean, what about the big trip?”


“I’m still going on the big trip,” Tara answered, taking her folder back and hiding it away, “But when I come home, it’s
possible I’ll want to further my education and I’m just covering my bases.”


Willow’s eyes lit up.


“So you’re thinking maybe…just starting college a year later?”


“Maybe,” Tara shrugged, “The whole reason I want to travel is to see life outside of my bubble… learn about myself and how I see my future.”


Willow’s face turned pouty.


“You’re so talented. You could do so much—”


Tara slid back down to the floor, interrupting Willow’s flow.


“When you go to college, are you going to become a guidance counselor?” Tara asked, receiving a confused shake in return, “Then would you mind not counseling me?”


Willow noted the clipped tone and dropped it.


“Why didn’t you tell your mom?”


“Because she had to go back to school later in life and it was hard and she would prefer me not have to go through that…” Tara replied with a sigh, “But I don’t know yet what I want. I don’t want to end up doing something I hate. I might not go to school at all and I don’t want to get her hopes up.”


Willow shook her head. College was just what you did. There was a linear progression through life and college was a very defined part through high school and grad school, or maybe straight through to a career, though any career that was acceptable for Willow to have would require grad school.


Acceptable to who?


She blinked, balled her face wipe and threw it toward the trash. It missed, and she stood up with a blush to pick it up.


“Sometimes I don’t get you at all.”


Tara sat with her knees up, plate on them while she ate her pie.


“Usually you get me very well,” she replied with a wink, “Hey, I heard String Cheese Incident is playing The Bronze next week. Do you want to go?”


Willow sat back down and took her own pie into her lap.


“Um…we went before.”


Tara nodded.


“Yeah, it was fun.”


They’d danced at each other, if not quite with each other, but Tara had still had fun just being out with Willow. Of course, that was before…


“I think I’m busy that night,” Willow said and Tara noted that she hadn’t said which night it was.


“Yeah, of course. No problem.”


Willow gnawed on her lip as she pushed the pie around the plate.


“Did you come up with your thanks earlier on the spot?” she asked after a pensive moment.


“Kind of?” Tara answered, musing over it, “My thoughts work in lyrics sometimes and you…give me plenty to think about.”


“It was about me?” Willow asked, though she already had a fair idea.


Tara brushed the backs of her fingers along Willow’s arm.


“When it comes from my heart, it’s usually about you.”


“You have faith in me?” Willow asked softly, thoughtfully and slightly awed.


“Endless,” Tara answered without hesitation.


Willow paused for a moment. People often had expectations of her…but faith…faith was not something she often felt in spades.


“And the…path of destiny?” she asked slowly, trying to work it out in her head.


“I think we’re meant to be,” Tara replied honestly.


Too much, Tara thought as she saw the fear skitter across Willow’s face, though she thought perhaps there may have been the briefest moment of joy before it.


Patience.


“Wanna listen to some music?” she suggested lightly before Willow could dwell, “Before we go clean these up and get covered is dish soap bubbles?”


“Yeah,” Willow agreed, almost breathless.


Tara jumped up and turned on an 80s playlist, low so that Donny wouldn’t bang on the wall. The low hum of music took the starkness of the silence from the room.


Willow lay back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. Tara lay beside her, but with a bit of space so she didn’t crowd her.


I'll do anything that you want baby, anything at all. I'm waiting for you to see… you mean the world to me.


After a moment of watching Willow’s unmoving eyes, she brushed their hands together.


“Want me to shut that brain off?”


Willow blinked slowly and exhaled a breath as her head turned toward Tara.


“Yeah.”


She turned her body closer and Tara met her the rest of the way, closing the connection mouth-to-mouth.


They engaged in some mindless making out, but with hearts full of what words just couldn’t convey.


Yet.

Chapter Text


December


And I Don't Want The World To See Me
'Cause I Don't Think That They'd Understand




Willow finished tying the last gold balloon to the wall and jumped down the last rung of the step-ladder she’d been standing on.


“Don’t jump like that, Willow. It’s inelegant. And where’s the dress I picked out for you?”


Willow snapped the ladder into a flat form and made sure any eye-rolling was not in her mother’s vision.


“I’m going to get changed and Tara’s going to help me with my—”


“Oh, are Terri and Kerri coming?” Sheila interrupted, “I hope that delinquent son of hers knows he’s not invited. I’m not starting off a New Year dealing with his teenage alcoholism.”


Willow didn’t even know where to start with that list of offensive statements, but she wasn’t given a chance anyway as Sheila picked up one of the hors-d'oeuvres and peered at it with scrutiny undeserved of a plate of pastries.


“What are these? They’re supposed to be wild mushroom bouchees.”


Willow came over and pursed her lips to hide a grin.


“Um…I think these are pigs in blankets.”


The doorbell rang in the background, while Sheila dropped the little wrapped piggy and held her hand like she’d been contaminated.


“Oh, those inept caterers. Do not let your father see this. I’ll get rid of them.”


Willow didn’t need to be told twice.


They still didn't go back to the restaurant where Ira had accidentally been served real bacon instead of turkey bacon. And she hadn't even been in double digits when it happened.


Willow didn’t keep kosher herself, but only in secret. Besides, Ms. Maclay made really nice pigs in blankets for her sometimes and the ones being thrown into the trash didn’t look like they could be any competition. The weenies looked a little, well, weenie.


She skidded out of the room to answer the door, but her father was already there. Willow tugged the living room door closed behind her and Ira glanced over.


“There you are, Willow. I was just saying hello to your friend.”


He stepped aside and Willow’s face lit up.


“Tara.”


She hadn’t seen her…


She hadn’t seen her Tara in a while with the holidays keeping them both with their families. She rushed over and, forgetting herself, threw her arms around the girl. When Ira cleared his throat to indicate the cool breeze being let in by the open door, Willow pulled back with a blush.


“Um, Tara’s going to do my make-up.”


Buffy had always done it in the past but Buffy had still been…unavailable of late and Willow had been a little unavailable herself.


Willow could have done her own make-up, but she wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to hang out with Tara. Plus, she liked Tara’s unique flair.


“Not too much now,” Ira advised as he shut the door.


Willow threw him some side-eye.


“Dad, I’m nearly an adult.”


He pulled her into him, her head hitting against the top tuft of chest hair protruding from the top open buttons on his shirt.


“You’ll always be my little girl.”


“Dad!” Willow protested loudly, pushing away and grabbing Tara’s hand to tug her along, “Um, don’t go in there.”


She pointed at the living room door.


“You’ll get roped into…straight stuff,” she said, her eyebrows lifting in horror as she contemplated her words, “Like, like, straightening stuff. Like…the streamers! And balloons.”


Ira nodded and walked off in the other direction, lifting either side of his undone bowtie and approaching the mirror in the hallway.


“Fair warning, thank you, Willow.”


“We better hurry upstairs,” Tara interjected, lips quirked up on one side, “I’m not very good at straight stuff.”


Willow’s cheeks flamed and she stared wide-eyed at Tara for a moment before pushing on her back toward the stairs. She closed the door behind her and watched as Tara unzipped her backpack on the bed, chuckling.


Part of her was angry for teetering way too close to the edge of a revelation she was nowhere near ready for, but most of her listened to Tara as she laugh and the angry burn turned to sizzling desire. She flicked the lock, a reflex at this stage, and strode over, standing just behind her.


Tara put an eyeshadow palette down and turned the rest of the way to face her.


“Hey, you.”


And Tara kissed her, with the achingly soft purpose that filled all of their kisses; that made Willow feel like they were lifted off their feet and floating. Tara-thirst was very real and the quench was the most satiating of experiences. She was so lost she didn’t even realize Tara had parted from her and was speaking.


“Huh?” she asked, not-so-elegantly.


“Did you have a nice Hanukkah?” Tara repeated, stroking a brush against her palm to get off any residue.


“Oh,” Willow replied, blinking several times, “Um, yeah. How was Christmas?”


“Like every other holiday with my brother around. Actually, it was pretty nice. My mom made egg nog. She wasn't going to bring it over to you but I told her you'd come over for it. Don't want to be in your Dad's bad books,” Tara answered with a sigh that turned into a smile, “So what are you wearing tonight?”


Willow walked to her closet and opened the door, revealing the dress hanging on the back of it. It was silver and gold like Sheila’s color scheme and managed to be frumpy and clash horrendously with itself at the same time.


“Oh. It’s…it’s nice,” Tara said, trying not to react externally as she was internally.


She failed.


“Uh, oh, well, my mom picked it out,” Willow replied upon seeing the look on Tara’s face.


Tara reached out and ran her fingers along it, only making her cringe more.


“Do you have to wear it?”


Willow nodded sadly.


“It’s been picked out and approved.”


Tara motioned her head toward the closet in a silent ‘Can I?’ and Willow stood aside to give her access.


“Put the dress on,” Tara advised as she rooted through the contents of Willow’s wardrobe.


Willow went into her bathroom and reluctantly pulled the dress on. The tight shoulder straps and taffeta underskirt weren’t any more comfortable than the first time she’d tried it on. She robot-walked back into the room and was surprised to see Tara actually smile softly when seeing her, and not in the way Cordelia smirked when appraising her outfits.


“Wow, you really can make anything look beautiful.”


Willow didn’t blush, not on her cheeks, but somewhere much deeper inside that made her heart race with the extra flow of blood.


She looked down and took a side of each pleated skirt in her hands.


“But please tell me you can do…something?”


“I can do something,” Tara confirmed, and produced a small travel-sized sewing kit she carried around with her from the front pouch of her backpack ever since an unfortunate incident in school with a pair off tight pants she'd bought off the rack, “But it will need to be drastic.”


Willow let go of her dress and spoke easily.


“I trust you.”


Tara folded her arms cautiously. She'd made minor alterations to some of Willow's clothing before, but mostly just fixed the occasional tear.


“It-it's not like anything that we've ever—”


Willow smiled and put her hand on Tara’s arm.


“I trust you.”


Tara’s heart glowed, as Willow’s just had moments before and she gestured Willow forward. She had her do a turn and made the plan of attack in her head.


The first to get attacked with the scissors was the underskirt, being hacked away until the dress transformed from whatever mess it was before into a more free-flowing princess cut style (or the best she could do without ripping it to the seams completely). Willow was relieved at the immediate change in comfort.


She watched as Tara worked in a blur, snipping and pulling things here and there, completely ridding her of those ugly shoulder straps and repurposing them into a band around the waist, pulling more attention to Willow’s chest.


A necessary change, Tara thought.


Definitely not done for any selfish reasons.


If she had time and her real sewing machine, she could have really transformed that dress and take out the glaring back piece that looked like it had been plated in gold, cheap gold at that. Instead, she utilized a fuzzy white scarf to wear over Willow’s shoulders and let it fall down her front. She loved quirking up an outfit and that did it wonderfully.


She had Willow sit down to do her make-up and used a shimmering green, matching Willow’s eyelids to it so it emphasized the already beautiful green that shone around her pupils.


Then, again for totally non-selfish reasons, she gave Willow a deep red lip.


“Okay, go look,” she said, running a brush through Willow’s hair once to settle it.


Willow stood up and took two steps toward the mirror, then stopped still.


“Whoa,” she said, turning on her side and swishing the end of the dress, “I look…I mean, you did…”


She straightened up and gulped at her reflection. Where Buffy went dark and subtle, Tara went bright and vivid. Willow had been told she looked smoldering under Buffy’s palate but she looked dazzling under Tara’s and she liked that too.


“Whoa,” she repeated, eyes widening as she looked down and up again, “Gosh, look at those.”


Tara looked down shyly.


“I think you look amazing,” she said, then softer but not quite under her breath, “But I always think you look amazing.”


Willow glanced over, then found her feet and closed the gap. She put her hands on Tara’s shoulders and very softly pressed their lips together.


“You don’t just look amazing, you are amazing. You have no idea how talented you are. Seriously, I—”


The door handle jostled and then a hand smacked against the wood.


“Willow? Why is the door locked?”


Willow hurried over and opened the door to her mother.


“Uh, hi, sorry, didn’t want one of the caterers to stumble in here needing to use the bathroom,” she said, glancing away as she cringed at the telling off they’d probably gotten from Sheila, “Or to cry in.”


Sheila huffed.


“Well guests are arriving, you need to come downstairs,” she stated, then paused for a moment and really looked at Willow for the first time, “You look…”


She looked her up and down again, then nodded once. The closest thing to a compliment Willow had received outside of her schoolwork in a while. Sheila turned on her heels and headed back down to the party, while Willow sighed but was smiling to herself over her mother’s reaction.


“Well, have to go play the dutiful daughter.”


Tara kept her gaze downward as she packed her things up again.


“You should join a drama class. You’d be good.”


Willow paused and frowned.


“Was that…”


“Shade?” Tara finished for her, raising an eyebrow, but Willow’s brow just creased in confusion so Tara explained, “That’s what we call it when someone is being…sassy, I guess.”


Willow’s eyes narrowed slightly.


“Who’s ‘we’?”


Tara brushed it off without an answer.


“Don’t you need to go downstairs?”


Willow heard the music start to play and nodded. She wasn’t sure about their exchange, but there were more pressing matters.


“Are you staying?”


Tara glanced up.


“Do you want me to?”


Willow offered a confused smile. As if there was anything but one answer to that.


“Always.”


Tara smiled softly and nodded.


“I’ll be down in a minute.”


Willow threw a wink and turned out of the room.


Tara made herself look a bit more presentable with the make-up and took her sweater off so she was just in her dark jeans and flowing shirt. She slowly made her way through the throngs of people who had suddenly shown up. They all looked the same; suburban white couples in expensive clothes with fake nails and faker laughs. They were all academic associates of the Rosenbergs and notably, Kimberly was the only neighbor to attend, despite not being the only neighbor invited.


Willow was on her ‘rounds’, aka being shown off, so Tara slunk off into the corner by way of the hors-d'oeuvres. She'd had her fill of turkey leftovers at this point. At the end of the table, near the zucchini fritters, there was a sudden rush of silvery, gold fabric and then Willow was standing in front of her. Close.


Very close.


Dangerously close.


“Hide me,” Willow panted, eyes darting around enough that she didn’t notice Tara’s breath so heavy against her lips.


Tara gulped and looked down, shaking her head slightly to compose herself.


“Who am I hiding you from?” she asked, impressively coherent.


Willow puffed out a breath.


“Dickie Babcock.”


Tara’s eyebrow arched.


“What’s his real name?”


Willow met Tara’s gaze, pained.


“Dickie Babcock.”


Tara visibly winced.


“Ouch.”


A boy with greasy hair and a face that screamed ‘entitled’ walked by, but was more interested in the food so passed by without noticing. Willow exhaled a breath of relief.


Tara realized she recognized him from the country club and then put the name together, placing him and his family. She understood why Willow would want to avoid him.


“I’m almost done with the parentals, I think,” she said to Tara with an appreciative smile, “Think you could grab us a couple of sodas and find us some primo couch real estate? We can play ‘rate the most pretentious smile’.”


Tara eyed the floor, smiling.


“I think I can do that.”


Willow brushed past again as she was silently summoned by Sheila’s hand motioning her over. Tara poured a diet cola for each of them respectively, the easiest drink to access. She weaved her way through the crowd and couldn’t help stopping a foot from the Rosenbergs chatting to their friends, to watch the ripple of Willow’s back muscles as she tensed during the conversation. She so desperately wanted to reach over and relax that tension.


“…so thrilled that our Willow here got early decision into Harvey Mudd. Of course, with her genes…”


Another round of fake laughter hit the ceiling but Tara just felt a thick haze settle around her.


She pushed through to the closest object available for sitting, the loveseat, and stared ahead; working out what she’d just heard.


Finally, Willow found her again and gratefully took the cola and downed it in one go.


“Phew. I think I’ve paid my debt to society for any past and future crimes. Hey, think you could bunch up for a little Willow butt in there?”


Tara finally lifted her gaze.


“Did you get accepted to Harvey Mudd?”


“Oh,” Willow replied, paling slightly, “Um, yeah.”


She shrugged, but her face betrayed her.


“When did you find out?” Tara pressed.


“Couple of weeks ago,” Willow answered, looking around awkwardly.


Tara met Willow’s eye.


“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, clearly hurt, “That’s your dream school.”


“Yeah. It was. Is, I mean,” Willow corrected quickly, “We haven’t really seen each other.”


“In a few days,” Tara answered, “Not two weeks.”


Willow felt like she was being punched in the gut by the tone of Tara’s voice.


“Is it loud in here?” she asked, fanning herself with the scarf, “Do you want to go back upstairs?”


Tara was silent so Willow brushed her leg against her.


“Please Tara,” she said sincerely, “Let’s talk about this somewhere…quieter.”


Tara considered it, then nodded. She put the glass down and followed Willow back upstairs. She sat on the bed while Willow locked the door and hung the scarf from the back of it.


The room was painfully silent but Tara didn’t give Willow a reprieve and waited for her to speak.


“I didn’t purposefully keep it from you,” Willow said eventually, “I didn’t tell anyone but my parents, and only because they’d already opened the letter.”


Tara looked up with a creased brow.


“Why wouldn’t you tell people? I don’t understand. It’s your dream.”


Willow shrugged one shoulder.


“I guess I don’t want to think that far ahead right now.”


Tara stood and took Willow’s hands.


“Aren’t you happy?”


Willow stayed rooted to the spot, gazing into Tara’s eyes, grateful for the excuse to tell the truth.


“Yeah, I’m happy.”


Tara smiled softly; it’s not like she wasn’t used to Willow’s quirks.


“I’m so proud of you. C’mere.”


She cupped Willow’s face and kissed Willow’s lips and Willow was in heaven. A perfectly soft, plump, warm heaven. She pressed herself into it and Tara willingly pulled her in. Willow wasn’t expecting it and tumbled forward, making them fall onto the bed in a heap. Tara’s legs hung off but Willow was stretched across her entire upper body.


The smallest of conscientious hip rolls would have had her straddling Tara and pressing together fluidly. Instead, their bodies remained in inexperienced disarray but their faces stayed pressed close yet again that evening. Willow’s impulse was to scramble up with a chorus of apologies but heaven was right there staring her in the face.


Tara was in a much more precarious position. Not only was Willow on top of her, breath warm on her lips, but Willow’s cleavage was very much exposed and just a heaved breath away from thrusting into Tara’s face. She was trying so desperately not to look that her eyelashes seemed permanently fused to her lower lids.


Willow could feel a new heat burning between them, the embers from earlier stoking into a full-blown flame. It was new and terrifying and enthralling all at once. Willow was a teetering on panic but it quickly subdued and was replaced with excitement when Tara rolled them over and Willow experienced what it was like to have a warm body on top of her.


Her breath left her lungs for a moment, only returning when she gasped as Tara’s lips pressed into her neck and she knew what it felt like to be marked.


Never in her life had Willow been so aware of her ears as a tickling, thumping sensation sparked there and shot downward; further and further south each time Tara kissed her there. The collar on Tara’s shirt scratched her exposed collarbone and she had no idea how a brush of fabric could make her feel so wild.


She wasn’t sure she liked it.


Or, more accurately, she wasn’t sure that she liked that she liked it.


She used both hands to pull at Tara’s collar, which Tara took as being pulled back up and obliged with landing her lips to Willow’s mouth, really smearing her lipstick now. Willow moaned, a deep moan from the back of her throat. Her fingers tensed and there was a ‘pop’ as the first closed metal button on Tara’s shirt released from the pressure.


Tara pulled away from the kiss, flushed and looked down at the position of Willow’s hands. Thinking she was waiting for permission, Tara shyly nodded.


Willow’s eyes widened and she looked at her now quaking hands, putting together what the silent exchange meant.


She—oh, she’s saying I can…oh…OH…well…okay. They’re just boobs. I see my own all the time. No big deal.


She slowly pulled her hands further apart, nearly jumping each time a metal button popped. She didn’t dare look anywhere but Tara’s face until the shirt was just left hanging and Tara’s bra-clad breasts were just sitting there in view.


Willow’s eyes finally fell on them.


Her world would never be the same.


WRONG. WRONG WRONG WRONG, I WAS WRONG. WRONGY MCWRONGERSON. WRONG.


She hadn’t seen Tara in any state of undress since they were tweens when Kimberly took pity on her and brought her bra shopping with them when it was apparent Sheila wouldn’t make the time to. Willow had been jealous, then, of how Tara was developing. Now, envy was the last thing on her mind.


The swell of Tara’s breasts; the supple curve; the nipples she could see, hardened under the fabric all covered in that sweet, all-too-kissable skin.


This was too much.


Willow was INTO it and that was NOT OKAY.


Danger, Will Rosenberg. Danger!


She forced her eyes to look away; up, down, anywhere but the new direction of her affections. As her mind whirred, it was only further confused by a flash of something decidedly not-skin colored across Tara’s ribs.


“Wait…what?”


Tara looked down and immediately clutched both sides of her shirt, pulling them across each other to hide what had been seen. She turned her back to Willow, sitting on the edge of the bed, still catching her breath from their activities.


“Shit.”


There was silence for a full 30 seconds before Willow finally gathered herself enough to speak.


“Is that a tattoo?”


Tara slowly released the tight hold on her shirt until the black etchings on her skin were visible again.


It was a musical staff, notated in a way Willow couldn’t read. It stretched across Tara’s ribs, right under her breasts; the top, in fact, was hidden under the wire of her bra. It highlighted the taut muscles Tara had there from all her breath training.


Willow wanted to trace the lines and shapes but held back.


“Is it real?” she asked, though she already knew the answer.


Tara just nodded.


“When did you get a tattoo?” Willow asked again, hurt.


“Last summer,” Tara answered, a shallow echo to her voice, “At band camp.”


Willow’s brow creased.


“How? You were underage.”


Tara’s lips pursed before she answered.


“A friend knew someone.”


“A friend?” Willow prompted, knowing she was only getting snippets of the story.


Tara finally raised her gaze.


“A girl.”


Willow physically felt herself shatter.


“…oh.”


Tara immediately began shaking her head emphatically.


“It’s not…it wasn’t…nothing happened.”


Willow avoided Tara’s gaze, only minorly relieved.


“But you wanted it to,” she said quietly.


Tara shook her head again, closing her eyes like it might all go away.


“It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t…real. It was a reaction. I never had any real feelings for her.”


“You hid the tattoo so…” Willow replied accusingly, making Tara’s eyes snap open with anger.


“You hid your college acceptance.”


“I had a reason,” Willow retorted.


“I did too!” Tara replied, looking like she was near tears, “I was embarrassed, okay?”


She rubbed the heel of her hand against her eye to stop herself crying.


“I was heartbroken over our fight.”


Willow immediately felt a pang of guilt and allowed Tara time and space to continue speaking. After a minute or so, she did.


“She was the only person who was nice to me. Everyone avoided the weird crying girl who had to clear snot out of her saxophone. She’d just slip me a Kleenex and wait after classes so I’d have someone to walk to dinner with.”


Looking back, Willow would realize this was the moment she knew she was in love with Tara because her first reaction to hearing this was feeling grateful that someone had been kind to her love and not the feelings of jealousy that bubbled underneath.


Unfortunately, at that moment, the jealousy was still all too easy to access.


“We snuck off one night and got drunk. I convinced her to bring me to the guy who did her tattoo. It was this cool design, a feather floating around a flute—”


Willow stood up, her foot stomping on the way down.


“I knew you were going to meet a sexy flutist!”


Tara just looked bewildered.


“Why do you keep saying that?”


“Everyone knows they’re the sluttiest of the band players,” Willow replied snidely.


Tara gave Willow a look that Willow never wanted to see directed at her again: disappointment.


“That’s ridiculous and totally misogynistic and I just lost some respect for you.”


Willow knew that was true and looked down, crossing her arms over her chest.


“Sorry that I insulted your secret camp girlfriend.”


“Emmy wasn’t my girlfriend,” Tara protested, having to stop herself from adding on ‘are you?’, “She wasn’t anything but a friend. Yes, okay, I stupidly tried to kiss her because I was sloshed and she was nice and I was hurting so much. And she very politely turned me down and I was totally humiliated.”


She sniffed and it broke Willow’s heart.


“And I went back to my room and looked at my slideshow of photos of you and cried for the millionth time.”


Tara finally sought Willow’s gaze again.


“I was hurting and acted dumb but all it did was make me realize how much nobody could compare to you. You rejected me, pretty harshly—”


Willow looked away but Tara stayed on her.


“And you were still my whole world.”


Willow’s eyes moved back again because Tara’s eyes silently demanded it.


“Can you get that at all? Just…clutching onto something, anything, when you’re feeling lost? I know it was wrong and I know I would have hated it if we actually did kiss. But we didn’t.”


Willow’s arms fell to her side, then she dropped beside Tara on the bed with a ‘poof’ of utter deflation.


“Something…something similar happened to me.”


Tara didn’t even have to ask. Her forehead muscles tensed.


“Xander.”


Willow nodded slowly, regretfully.


“It was that day you left for camp,” she said and took in a breath like she would when she was about to release a babble, “I thought I could prove—”


Whatever she was going to say was suddenly gone, popped like a balloon.


“Well, it did the opposite of what I wanted it to.”


Tara didn’t want to feel tense. She wanted to be reasonable and understanding but her stomach burned, and not in the pleasant way it had earlier.


“So the reason you’re not speaking to Xander is that you slept with him and didn’t like it?”


Willow shook her head desperately.


“No—Cordelia walked in.”


“So it’s because he cheated on Cordelia with you and got caught,” Tara deduced, “She won’t let him speak to you?”


Willow’s eyes creased.


“Almost.”


Tara took a moment to respond.


“Sorry?”


“Almost cheated,” Willow corrected purposefully, “She walked in before I could do anything but surprise the shit out of Xander by jumping him. And I saw the look on her face…I thought I’d enjoy seeing Cordelia getting some comeuppance but I just felt sick. I thought I was going to throw up right on top of him. I ran, I was halfway down the street before I even heard Cordelia screaming. I haven’t spoken to him since. The idea of him hating me on top of everything else…”


She paused for a moment and swallowed.


“It was like this big slap in the face. I thought I had romantic feelings for him and friendship feelings for you but I’d completely inverted it. He was the friendship and you were the…”


Tara was stunned as she got her head around both of their revelations of the evening. It was a lot, but also completely nothing at all.


“…so we’re arguing over the fact that neither of us had sex last summer?”


It was funny, but Willow wasn’t in much of a laughing mood. She stood up and walked toward her balcony door.


“I need to cool down.”


Tara waited for a moment, then two, then stood up to follow Willow out.


She was sitting on the ground, legs bent and tucked under so her dress stretched over her knees and kept her modesty. She really did look stunning, if not a little morose at that moment.


Tara sat beside her, using the wall to guide her back down. She said nothing, but left her hand flat on the ground, near Willow’s. After a few moments, Willow covered it with her own.


Their fingers linked together and Tara scooted that tiny scooch closer so that there really wasn’t an inch between them. She looked out into the night sky and used their conjoined hands to point upward.


“Remember the ones we made up when we were little?”


Willow smiled softly and nodded. Tara returned it and sighed into the night.


“There's not a star left in the sky tonight that hasn't been wished on.”


She leaned her head on Willow’s shoulder.


“My wish would be to forget about our ‘almost’ mistakes…especially since I know mine meant nothing.”


Willow brushed their palms and looked into Tara’s eyes.


“And you know mine meant nothing if Xander is the best I can come up with as a surrogate.”


Tara frowned.


“You should try to talk to him. You were such good friends, maybe he’ll understand—”


Willow quickly shook her head.


“I see how Cordelia looks at me in school. I can't put him in that position again.”


“How does he look at you?” Tara asked softly.


Willow closed her eyes.


“I don’t wait long enough to find out.”


Tara thought Willow might be pushing Xander away in the same way she’d pushed her away, but honestly, she was just about managing their own situation without trying to intervene in another relationship.


“Things fall apart. They fall apart so hard.”


“No kidding,” Willow sighed on an exhale.


“But this didn’t,” Tara continued softly, “We cracked but we didn’t fall. And we mended.”


Tara turned her head to Willow.


“And I feel whole when I’m around you.”


Willow swallowed and met Tara’s eye.


“I feel like that too.”


Tara smiled; the smile that Willow loved when the corners of her mouth and eyes would crease; the smile that made Willow’s heart skip a beat; the smile that made her feel like if evoking it was her only accomplishment in life, she could die happy.


“I think that we came up with a good resolution,” Willow said, holding Tara’s hand a little tighter, “Forget the bad stuff.”


“And do what makes you happy,” Tara added softly.


Willow gulped at the weight of that and tried to relax. She leaned in and Tara met her halfway for a reunifying kiss. It wasn’t as heated as the kiss they’d parted from, but it was soft and sweet and everything they needed at that moment.


It was warming, enough to distract themselves away from their exposed skin, even in the cool winter evening. With just the moon to bathe them, they stayed tucked in the quiet corner of the balcony until a loud, obnoxious voice floated up to them.


“Hey, that you Rosenberg? I’m feeling generous if you want a smooch at midnight.”


Willow never moved so fast in her life. She shot up, twisting herself in the process and getting preciously close to going right over the railing had she had even a little bit more momentum. Tara caught her by the waist to stop her but was immediately shaken off.


Willow looked down at Dickie Babcock munching on a pile of pigs in blankets stacked in his hand that he must have raided from the trash. She pulled a face and with her heart hammering scoffed in his direction and turned on her heel to march back into her bedroom. Tara followed her, still in shock at how close she saw Willow come to tumbling off the balcony.


“Willow, you—”


“He could have caught us!” Willow hissed, pacing and wringing her hands nervously, “Anyone could have walked out and seen us!”


Tara stopped and swallowed.


“Would that be totally awful?”


“Yes!” Willow almost shouted, her hands smacking against her face in alarm, “Your top is open, oh my god, oh my god! What was I thinking, we can’t take our clothes off, anyone could walk in!”


Tara looked down and quickly began buttoning herself up again.


“The door is locked,” she said quietly.


“What if we forget?!” Willow asked in a fluster, “No way, no way.”


Tara finished fixing her shirt and walked over. She wasn’t sure Willow would be receptive to being touched, so she kept her hands by her side.


“Just breathe for a minute, baby. Breathe.”


Willow couldn’t help but respond to the comforting tone. It wasn’t the first time Tara had called her baby and it felt something akin to her heart melting and spreading its warmth throughout her whole body. It was a quick enough moment that she allowed herself to feel it and calm herself down.


She reined in her breathing but kept herself at a distance.


“I should be with my parents for the countdown.”


Tara just nodded.


“You should fix your lipstick,” she said, and fetched it for Willow, “Let me.”


She touched up Willow’s lipstick and wiped her neck of any residue of the lip gloss Tara herself had been wearing. Willow blushed as she realized what Tara was doing with the wipe.


“Thanks.”


“Don’t have to thank me,” Tara replied, pulling Willow’s hair forward at her shoulders.


Instead, Willow leaned in and rested her forehead on Tara’s chest for a moment.


Tara wrapped her arms around Willow and held on for them both.


With another quick once-over for anything out of place in their appearance that screamed ‘we were making out up there’, they headed back into the party which had thinned slightly but still had a lot of people filling out the large function room.


Tara decided to copy Willow and found her mother for the New Year countdown. She barely heard a single number as she watched Willow fend off Dickie’s advances, though it was obvious she didn’t need help and rebuffed him easily.


Tara didn’t even realize it was all over until her mother poked her and she heard the bars of Auld Lang Syne from some of the men in the room.


“Happy New Year,” Kimberly said, giving her daughter a sidelong hug, “Any resolutions?”


Tara looked down at the bracelet hanging from her wrist and glanced across the room to where its match was hanging off another.


“Believe,” she answered finally, dragging her gaze to her mother, “You?”


Kimberly smiled, it brightening her face as Tara’s smile did her own.


“I like yours. Can I borrow it?”


Tara chuckled.


“Sure.”


“I’m going to head home. I saw Donny’s bike come in a little while ago. Are you okay here or do you want to come with?”


Tara looked around; she knew no one but she also didn’t want to abandon Willow.


“I’m good. I’ll be quiet coming in.”


Kimberly nodded, kissed Tara’s head and went to say her goodbyes. She was lost in her own thoughts for a bit until she felt a glass being pressed into her hand. She looked up and Willow was smiling down at her.


“Cherry cola. Found a can of my secret stash. Are you bored? Do you want to pick the music? My parents are too tipsy to notice.”


Tara smiled naturally. That was a generous offer, considering how much she knew Willow craved her parents’ approval.


One of Willow’s greatest attributes was how thoughtful she was. The flip side of that was being full of thoughts, not always positive. Tara wished she could help with that.


“Thank you,” she said finally, taking the glass, “I’m okay…alone with my thoughts.”


Willow gave Tara a curious look, but accepted it and moved away again. Tara found the quietest corner, where she could still keep an eye on Dickie if needs be. She knew staying wasn’t all based on chivalry…in fact, it was all based on fear. She didn’t want to lose Willow to blind panic.


Not again.


Willow waved from across the room and Tara waved back.


She relaxed.


Her eyes and mouth creased.


She was happy. At that moment, with their eyes meeting across a room, she was happy.


And that was more than something to hold on to.


That was her anchor, and there was no letting go.

Chapter Text


The Night It All Began


Yes It Was Plain To See, Yes It Was Meant To Be






The first time they met did not start out as an occasion of joy.


In fact, Willow was pulled screaming and crying from her house and across the street.


She had been playing with her favorite abacus and what with it being attached to her wall, she couldn’t bring it with her. This resulted in her trying to squirm out of her father’s clutch, pulling his bowtie undone in the process.


Ira was trying his best to soothe her.


“Maybe I should stay home with her. You said you had a sitter—”


“Ira, you have to ignore the bad behavior at this age or it encourages the attention seeking,” Sheila advised, holding the end of her ball gown up so it wouldn’t get dirt on the hem.


“She’s not a dog,” Ira replied sullenly but smiled when the idea seemed to calm Willow down. He tickled her tummy, “Woof woof.”


Tears still stained the four-year-old’s cheeks but she smiled and cuddled into Ira. They arrived at the house across from theirs and Ira put Willow on her feet, holding onto her shoulders for support. Sheila rang the doorbell and a young woman barely out of her teens answered.


“Hello I'm Sheila Rosenberg, I live across the street—” Sheila started her spiel, stopping when the person on the other side wasn’t quite who she expected, “Oh, are you the babysitter?”


“No, I’m the resident,” the woman replied, trying to not show the signs of confusion as to why the well-dressed family she had seen walking in and out of their house, but had never actually spoken to, were doing on her doorstep, “How can I help you?”


Sheila’s eyes narrowed for a moment.


“The children here are yours?”


The woman’s face buckled into a concerned frown.


“Have they done something wrong?” she asked, noting little Willow’s tear-stained face and worrying about what one of her children, in particular, might have done to her, “Are you okay, sweetheart?”


“She’s fine,” Sheila dismissed and extended her hand again, “I’m Sheila, this is my husband Ira and our daughter Willow. We’ve been meaning to introduce ourselves.”


The other woman somewhat warily shook Sheila’s hand.


“I’m Kimberly.”


Sheila looked at Kimberly with barely-disguised pity.


“Is it just you and the children?”


Kimberly didn’t dour under the gaze; she’d endured a lot worse than a pretentious suburban neighbor.


“Yes, Donny and T—“


“So listen, Kerri,” Sheila interrupted and Kimberly thought she might have seen Ira wince, “The woman who lived here before you, so sad to see she’s passed on.”


“She just moved to Toledo to be closer to her fam—” Kimberly started but was once again interrupted.


Sheila seemed to like the sound of her own voice.


“Yes, well, she’s left us in a bit of a lurch. You see, she would watch over Willow here when we had events. And as you can probably tell from our dress, we have one tonight. Hosted by my university, we simply must attend. The sitter I had arranged has proven to be unreliable.”


Sheila took Willow and thrust her toward Kimberly. Kimberly instinctively held the crying child against her leg, stroking her hair in comfort.


“Oh—”


“She won’t be a bother, just put a book in her hands if she’s getting on your nerves, or a calculator works,” Sheila said, calling over her shoulder as she grabbed Ira’s elbow and led them both away again.


Kimberly watched them go in shock for a moment, then shook her head and bent down to Willow’s level.


“Do you want to come in and play, sweetie?”


“We’ll be back by 11,” Sheila called back, her voice carrying through the wind.


“We’re very grateful,” Ira added on, waving to Willow, who clung harder to Kimberly’s pants leg.


Kimberly rubbed Willow’s back, trying not to show her disdain for the young girl’s parents.


“Come inside, honey.”


She led Willow inside and to the living room, where a young boy was strewn across a bean bag watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV while a slightly younger girl was playing with her My Little Ponies.


“Did you say your name is Willow sweetheart?” Kimberly asked, and received a reluctant nod in return, “This is Donny and Tara. Tara, Donny, this is Willow. She’s come over to play for the evening.”


Donny barely looked up, but Tara did. Her hair was messily pulled into a zig-zag parting and could probably do with a cut to stop it falling into her eyes, but her gaze lifted and caught Willow’s eye.


Willow stared back, making Tara look away momentarily, but then she got the confidence to slowly approach.


“Hi, I’m T-Ta-ra.”


Willow looked Tara up and down and slowly extracted herself from Kimberly’s legs. Tara’s presence felt safer.


“‘m Willow.”


Tara’s little face was full of empathy for her scared new friend.


“Are you s-sad?”


Willow slowly nodded and Tara offered her open arms.


“Do you wan’ a h-hug? When I’m sad Momma gives me a hug and I, I feel bettah.”


Willow smiled and accepted. Tara’s hug made her feel like when she ate too much Jell-O and she liked it very much.


“Wanna play p-ponies?” Tara offered, prepared to give Willow her pick of the lot.


Willow shook her head furiously.


“I don’ like ponies.”


Tara didn’t seem too put out.


“Yur hair is pr-pretty,” she told Willow sweetly, “You look like d’Little Mermaid.”


Willow’s eyes lit up.


“She’s my fav’wit.”


Tara jumped up and down excitedly. She’d never had anyone to watch with before.


“We have d’vid-yo! Wan’a watch??”


Willow nodded eagerly.


“Yah!”


Tara went up to her brother.


“Don-nee, can we w-watch Ariel please?” she asked politely.


Donny just scowled.


“I’m watchin’ this!”


“Donny, you had the TV all day,” Kimberly advised from across the room, “Give your sister a turn, please.”


Donny jumped up and threw the remote across the room, barely missing the two girls’ heads.


“Donny!” Kimberly exclaimed as he stomped out through the kitchen to the backyard to kick his soccer ball against the wall.


She knew he was still confused about all the changes in their life lately and she couldn’t bring herself to discipline him harshly, so she let him go.


She set up the video for the girls and took a seat on the couch, taking out the newspaper she’d saved so she could look through the job section. Partway through the movie, Donny returned with his hands stuffed in his pockets.


“Mom I’m hungry. I want pizza.”


Kimberly put the newspaper down.


“You’ve had dinner. I can make you a snack—”


“I want pizza!” Donny repeated loudly.


Kimberly got up and discreetly checked her wallet, did some mental math and nodded with a sigh.


“Tara honey, Willow, will you eat some pizza?”


“Uh huh!” Tara replied cheerily.


“Yes pwease!” Willow replied a smile stuck on her face in stark contrast to when she’d first come in.


Kimberly smiled. It was nice to see at least one of her children happy. She called for a pizza and poured the kids some juice. Donny sulked up to his bedroom when it arrived, so Kimberly let the girls eat in front of the TV.


Willow giggled as Tara made the cheesy pizza stretch as far as she could make it. Tara seemed to enjoy making Willow laugh.


“Willow, ar’ yew my b-best friend now?” she asked shyly.


Willow nodded as she gobbled her bite of pizza.


“Are you mine?”


“Yeah I’m yours,” Tara replied with a bashful duck of her head.


She’d never had a best friend before, apart from Donny, but he didn’t seem to like her much lately.


Willow reached out and took Tara’s hand.


“Your hand makes my hand feel like sparkles.”


Tara giggled.


“Your hand makes my hand feel like unicorn magic.”


They played around pressing their hands together and giggling together each time they clasped.


A few hours later, they had passed out together on the couch, Tara’s slightly larger body spooning Willow’s. Kimberly covered them with a Flintstones blankie and kissed them both on the forehead.


When a knock came to the door, Kimberly braced herself to deal with the brazen Sheila again, but it was just a weary-looking Ira. He said hello and extended a hand with a fifty dollar bill in it.


Kimberly looked at it for a moment, then raised a hand to refuse.


“That’s…okay. Maybe our girls could keep playing together. We haven’t had a chance to make many friends yet.”


Ira smiled softly.


“That would be nice for Willow too.”


Kimberly offered an understanding look.


“They fell asleep together. Why don’t I bring her over in the morning?”


Ira just nodded cordially.


“Thank you. Was she a handful? Kids say the darndest things sometimes and she can be her own unique little person.”


“Have you ever listened close to the games they play, or the little songs they sing?” Kimberly replied affectionately, “You should have heard them tonight, they made up a little double act.”


“It’s nice to hear,” Ira smiled, “She often plays alone. Well, we’ll see you in the morning.”


Kimberly said goodbye, turned off all the lights and settled to sleep in the armchair. She didn’t like letting Tara out of her sight lately. She noticed the peaceful smile on her daughter’s face as she slept and it made her smile too.


She also noted the smile on Willow’s face, though she had no idea it was because it was the first night in months she wasn’t having nightmares about ponies.


Kimberly fell asleep for the first time hopeful for their future in this place.


The girls spent their first night ever in each other’s arms with no idea of just how much they would have to overcome to stay there.

Chapter Text


January


I Wanna Shout It From The Rooftops
(I Wish That It Could Be Like That)



Donny kicked the dirt under his boot as his bike yet again stalled instead of starting.


“Goddammit!”


He hurled his helmet off his head and stomped back inside, grunting along the way. If he was an actor being method for an upcoming zombie movie, he’d win an Oscar. But he wasn’t. He was just an asshole.


“Mom!” he called gruffly; a demand, not a request, “I need car keys.”


Kimberly came out from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishcloth.


“What happened to your bike?”


“Needs juice,” Donny grunted.


Kimberly sighed to herself but didn’t push.


“Are they not at the door? Your sister took the car out yesterday.”


Donny scowled harder at the mention of Tara and bounded up the stairs.


“Stupid dumb bitch thinks she owns the place,” he muttered on his way up, before explosively barging his way past Tara’s bedroom door.


She wasn’t there. He snarled at her perfectly made bed and her perfectly tidy room and everything else that went along with Little Miss Perfect.


His eyes scanned the surfaces to see if he could spot the keys, but there was nothing. He tried to yank open the drawers, but Tara had become wise to him years ago and they were all locked. He dropped to his knees to peer under the bed, but it was barren under there.


Except for something buried away in the corner, seemingly forgotten and covered in dust. Donny reached, then hesitated. It was probably some nasty tissue that had slipped down from under Tara’s pillow, or worse, some old food wrapper that could have anything growing on it.


But it wasn’t often there was something misplaced in Tara’s room and curiosity got the better of him. He laid down flat on the floor and shuffled in enough that he could reach the far corner.


He was pleased to find on contact that it was just an old piece of crumpled paper. He flattened it out crudely and read the words scribbled.


The silly jokes you've said
Your different colored pens
The secrets you can't keep
The babble in your sleep
Some may call you strange
But me I'd never change
A thing
About you
Oh, about you



His eyes narrowed but he didn’t have time to do much but glance over it when Kimberly shouted up the stairs.


“Donny, did you even look? They’re right here.”


Donny paused for a moment, then stuffed the piece of paper in his pocket and hopped back up. He quickly opened his bedroom door to toss the paper in amongst the other mess, then bounded down the stairs, grabbed the keys from his mother’s clutch without a thank you and stomped out the door.


In a neighboring town, Tara was at her locker in the break room, changing out of her work uniform.


Another woman came in and offered Tara a smile, before going to her locker to retrieve a Vitamin Water. Her long, dark hair reached right down to her thighs when she bent back to pour the contents past her lips. When more than half was gone, she wiped her mouth, twisted the cap back on and returned it to her locker.


“Was that group hassling you, Tara? The young guys are always the worst.”


Tara shyly settled her fresh t-shirt over her hips and looked over her shoulder, shaking her head.


“They’re harmless. I’d take them over the snooty customers I used to have to serve any day.”


The other woman sighed for a moment, then straightened herself back up and fixed on a smile.


“Gotta get back out there. Just ran in between tables,” she said, waving her fingers as she headed for the door, “Have a nice evening.”


Tara smiled softly in farewell and grabbed a brown paper bag resting on the bench beside her.


“Thanks, you too, Nascha.”


She left out the back door, unlocked her bike from the stand, put the bag in the basket at the front and hopped on.


It was only a short ride to where she needed to go, a nice change from her usual slog back to Sunnydale.


She had to keep her mind on the prize; her lack of car meant more money going into her Big Trip fund, the round-the-world jaunt she’d been dreaming about since she was 12 and saving for almost as long.


Her mom had promised her the base ticket as her 18th birthday/graduation present but she was on her own for the rest, so every dollar saved was another dollar toward a life-changing experience.


She’d been working since she was legally allowed to at 14, stacking shelves until she turned 16 when she got the job at the country club. This job was the first outside Sunnydale but since she went to school out here, it evened up in terms of travel time to and fro.


Plus her calf muscles were super defined now from all the cycling.


She rode up the driveway at the house she was going to, waving to the man mowing the front lawn on the way.


“Hi Tara,” the man called over the mower, waving back.


Tara hopped off her bike and leaned it against the wall.


“Hi, Mr. Williamson.”


Mr. Williamson indicated with a thumb over his shoulder.


“He’s in the garage.”


Tara nodded gratefully, grabbed the brown paper bag and walked around to the garage. The door was closed, so Tara knocked on the metal, then bent down and opened it upward. The whole garage had been converted into a mini-studio, fitted with instruments and equipment for recording. Tara dreamed of having a space like it and utilized it whenever Nate asked her over.


He was standing behind a keyboard and sent a bright smile across the space as she walked in. Tara waggled her fingers and pulled the garage door down behind her.


“Hey Tare,” Nate greeted, his fingers skimming across the keys before settling into place, “What do you think of this?”


His fingers pressed smoothly across the keys and his deep, dulcet voice sang along with the jaunty tune.


“Hanker Oatmeal takes your hunger hankering for good.”


Tara played it over in her head.


“Is that your jingle for Mr. Simmon’s class?”


Nate nodded.


“Yeah,” he said wearily, “And it sucks.”


“No,” Tara replied, quickly, then added on in a kind tone, “It maybe trips over itself a little bit. I like the tune though. Play it again.”


He played the jingle without singing and Tara started to answer it in a hum. Her eyes were closed, or she would have seen Nate staring at her, a bit in awe.


He snapped out of it when Tara’s eyes open again.


“What about…‘Hanker Oatmeal, you’ll hanker for more.’”


Nate played the final two notes over again, whispering under his breath until he figured out the right cadence. He grinned.


“I think you just did my homework for me.”


“Not the first time,” Tara replied with a bashful smile, “The music is the hard part.”


“Have you done yours?” Nate asked, standing up from the keyboard and offering it to her.


Tara positioned herself behind the keyboard and put the paper bag on the floor by her feet. Her fingers brushed the keys and found where they needed to be.


“Pick up your very own Dolls Eye Crystal today by calling 555-0121,” she said in her best announcer voice, before playing the jingle tune she’d created, “The crystal that spellbinds and blows your mind!”


Nate laughed and clapped twice, the sound booming between his large hands and echoing around the room.


“I love it. What the heck is a Dolls Eye crystal?”


“I saw it in the window of a magic shop downtown,” Tara answered, “Downtown Sunnydale, that is.”


Nate raised an eyebrow.


“Sunnydale has a magic shop?”


Tara’s face scrunched.


“It’s had a few come and go. It’s a weird little town.”


“What’s it do?” Nate asked curiously.


“Weren’t you listening?” Tara replied with an elusive crooked smile, “It blows your mind.”


Nate smirked, nodding slowly.


“That’s good actually. I’m intrigued. I want to learn more.”


Tara spun off the small seat and thrust the paper bag toward Nate.


“Speaking of blowing your mind…I brought you spicy wings.”


Nate eagerly grabbed the bag and dropped into a bean bag chair to tear it open.


“Sweeeeet,” he said, popping the top on the take-out box and picking up a sticky wing, “Still like it there?”


Tara nodded noncommittally.


“It’s not as bad as people make out. Waitressing is waitressing.”


Nate shrugged and cleaned a bone with his mouth.


“Well, you make good wings.”


“I merely deliver,” Tara replied earnestly, then moved off and picked up one of the guitars, “I want to work on our set list for the show on the 14th. Maybe come up with a few more originals. I feel like we could make our set a bit meatier y’know?”


Nate toasted that with a chicken wing salute and listened as Tara tried out a few chord progressions. Nate nodded along and then suddenly picked up the beat. He jumped up and headed for his keyboard.


“I could add in some—”


“Don’t touch it with those sticky fingers!” Tara protested immediately, pained to see any instrument sullied with BBQ sauce.


She picked up the wet nap that had been with the regular napkins beneath the wings and brought it over to him. She perched next to him on the keyboard seat and tore the packet open with her teeth, plucking out the wet napkin and holding Nate’s hand up to clean off the sauce residue.


Nate stared at her mouth as it tore the packaging, then down at his hand as her fingers looped through his. His gaze slowly lifted and Tara, sensing the look, just smiled in his direction.


Then, in a fleeting second, Tara realized Nate’s face was moving toward hers. Her eyes widened and she hurried so much to back away, she ended up on her ass on the ground.


“W-What are you doing?”


Nate’s mouth suddenly went dry and he shot up, one hand reaching behind to rub his neck free of tension, while the other extended to help Tara up.


“Shit, Tara. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I thought…I thought wrong, clearly.”


Tara slowly took Nate’s hand and pulled herself up. Nate held on; clutch lingering and gaze searching Tara’s.


“You don’t feel anything?”


Tara took her hand back, looking awkwardly apologetic.


“Nate, I’m sorry, this isn’t…” she started and watched his eyes fall.


Her heart started to pound as she contemplated whether to say the next thing or not. Ultimately her mouth acted before her brain decided and she heard the words echoing as if she wasn’t the one saying them.


“Nate, I’m…I’m gay.”


That was the first time she’d ever said those words aloud. She’d alluded to some people that she liked girls but that huge three-letter word had never left her lips. Her whole body was shaking.


Nate was silent for what felt like forever.


“Oh,” he said eventually, tone neutral and giving nothing away, “That’s…less of a blow to my ego. I think.”


Tara was snapped from her fear and into annoyance. Nate saw the look on her face change and immediately held his hands up.


“I’m sorry, that was a dick thing to say. I just had no idea.”


Tara folded her arms into an X shape across her chest and looked down. She wasn’t sure this had been a good idea until suddenly she felt enveloped by Nate’s huge frame.


“Hey, c’mere,” he said, his soft lyrical voice comforting in her ear, “You know I don’t care right? You’re my friend no matter who you love.”


Tara relaxed into his embrace. That certainly was a lot easier than telling Willow. She started to rub her eyes free of the few tears of relief that had filled them. Nate kindly made no comment, but went to the beer fridge in the corner and took out a bottle of water. He guided Tara to take a seat on the keyboard chair again and stepped away, pressing his back up against the wall.


“Have you told anyone else?” he asked eventually.


Tara had to consider the question.


“Well not…exactly,” she said, guardedly, not wanting to give anything away that could hurt Willow, “I’m kind of…with someone.”


“Kind of?” Nate questioned.


Tara could only nod.


“It’s complicated,” she answered, averting her gaze again, “She’s not…out. She’s scared. But I love her.”


Her lips couldn’t help but smile at the thought of Willow.


Nate noticed. He smiled too.


“Hey, you’re in love,” he said, his voice full and his hands coming over to cover his own heart, “That makes my heart happy. It does. You deserve that, babe.”


Tara looked up again, eyes still slightly clouded.


“I’m sorry if I—”


“You didn’t,” Nate interrupted, holding a hand up to stop her, “Hey, a guy had to have hope. You’re rad.”


He pushed himself off the wall and came toward her.


“But it doesn’t change…this. I hope. I love creating with you. Are you still in?”


“I want to be,” Tara said sincerely, unsure where they stood now, “I really enjoy our partnership …and our friendship. But…”


Nate allowed her the time to finish, but when she didn’t, spoke up.


“I understand what’s on the table. I just want to keep making music with you. No funny business. Friends?”


He offered his hand, which Tara took and was pulled into another hug. Tara let out a bubbling laugh and Nate smiled at her, a little sadly.


He let out a hearty sigh, releasing the enormity of everything that had just happened and relaxed, stretching his hands behind his head.


“So… who’s your secret boo?”


Tara’s eyes creased for a moment in thought, then she smiled and turned toward the keyboard.


“Say that again.”



Nate’s truck pulled up on the curb outside Tara’s house. He turned off the engine.


“Great jam sesh,” he complimented, then paused for a moment to look at Tara, “I’m glad you told me. And don’t worry, no one will hear it from me. Not that you have anything to hide.”


Tara leaned across the center console to hug Nate, feeling invigorated and liberated.


As they hugged, she felt his phone vibrate in his top pocket and a familiar tone play.


“That noise has been going off all evening, what is it?”


“Dating app,” Nate admitted, grinning and Tara could only laugh.


“Of course.”


“Ladies love me,” Nate boasted playfully, “Almost all of ‘em.”


Tara jokingly punched his arm.


Across the road, and up a floor, Willow peeked out from her bedroom curtains and watched the exchange in the dim light of a street lamp. She felt a pang of jealousy.


She looked on as Tara exited the car, took her bike from the rack at the back and waved Nate off. Then Tara’s gaze flicked upward and Willow knew she was spotted. Tara didn’t seem bothered though, she just waved as her face lit up animatedly.


That smile. That radiance.


Tara was so ethereally beautiful.


If Willow knew nothing else, she knew that.


After a moment, Willow noticed Tara was gesturing at something. Her bike, she realized.


“Oh,” she said out loud, understanding. She nodded. Tara could tie her bike up over there so Donny might leave it alone.


She made her way through the quiet, empty house and around to the side gate to unlock it and let Tara in. She was waiting.


“Hey,” she said with that bright smile as she wheeled her bike alongside her.


“Hi,” Willow returned, waving her hand again in an awkward little wave, “You were with Nate?”


Tara just nodded.


“Yeah.”


She desperately wanted to share with Willow the freedom she was experiencing from saying her secret out loud, but she was scared it would make Willow pull away.


Patience.


“Hey, we’re playing a show at the Bronze in a couple of weeks. Will you come along?”


Willow brightened and nodded.


“Yeah, I’d love to. I love listening to you play. You guys, I mean, but you especially.”


Tara smiled bashfully but let her gaze meet Willow’s.


“Can I give you a hug?”


There was such hope in Tara’s voice; it made Willow’s heartbreak to think she thought the answer would be ‘no’.


And then she realized, that’s exactly what she’d done before; any time she was afraid they were being watched. That really broke her heart. She never wanted Tara to hurt, especially not because of her.


That look Tara had given her when Willow called her…that word. Willow thought she might die on the spot if she ever saw it again.


“I’d love a hug.”


Tara closed her arms around Willow and sighed contentedly.


“I miss you when you’re not around.”


Willow swallowed and took in a soft, but sharp breath, feeling Tara’s body against her and gaze penetrating inside her.


“I never felt like this with anyone before,” she whispered, “You only have to smile and I'm dizzy.”


Tara beamed. She kissed Willow and Willow let her. It was quick and chaste but the feelings between them lingered through a nose nuzzle.


“It’s getting late,” Tara said softly, “Want to hang out tomorrow?”


Willow nodded quickly.


“Yeah, definitely.”


Tara pecked Willow’s lips one last time and moved off with a wave.


Willow watched her go, feeling like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes. Being alone in the dark was usually a source of fear but for Willow, at that moment, it provided the absence of it. No one could see her, no one could judge her.


Her world was small and fit into a five foot four retreating frame.


For the first time, she really wanted to keep this feeling deep inside of her and not push it away.


Tara meant everything.


She couldn't lose that.


She wouldn’t.

Chapter Text


February


Just A Touch Of Your Love Is Enough To Take Control Of My Whole Body




Willow awoke to a stream of light as her curtains were thrown open and allowed in the morning sun.


She sat up, groggy and confused, and finally made out the figure of her mother when she brought a hand up to shield her eyes from the bright intruder. The only thing she wanted shining that brightly at her this early was Tara’s smile.


“What are you wearing?” Sheila’s stiff voice asked as she moved over to Willow’s closet and began looking through it.


Willow looked down at her Insect Reflection t-shirt, although technically it was Tara’s. Her one, with the cool rip, was folded away to be worn to Tara’s shows. The one Willow was wearing was one she had talked Tara into giving her as a ‘replacement’, that just happened to smell like Tara and was fitted to Tara’s body and so was the clothing equivalent of a Tara-hug.


“It’s a t-shirt, mom,” she answered gruffly, though a quick glance by her mother made her drop the tone quick.


“You have proper nightwear to wear to bed,” Sheila scolded and Willow just rolled her eyes.


Well, she thought about it.


“Can I ask what you’re doing?” she enquired politely, dropping her chin discreetly to inhale from her shirt.


“Picking out what you’ll wear to the club today,” Sheila replied airily.


Willow sat further up, sharply.


“What?”


“Pardon,” Sheila corrected with a click of her tongue, “I told you, Willow. We’re meeting up with the Babcocks at the Valentine’s Day brunch.”


Willow’s eyes widened.


It’s Valentine’s Day??


She then registered the rest of the sentence and withheld a groan.


Shit.


“Do I have to go?”


“Yes,” Sheila replied in a way that it was obvious no more complaints would be entertained.


Willow’s brow furrowed.


“Wait, I thought you and Dad were leaving for Canada today?”


“This evening, yes,” Sheila nodded, “We’ll continue on to the airport after.”


“And abandon me there?” Willow asked, unsure whether to be annoyed or hopeful.


“Don’t be ridiculous, we’ll call you a car,” Sheila said, shaking her head.


Willow sighed.


At least I’ll still have time to change before Tara’s show.


“Can I pick my own clothes?”


Sheila responded by laying out a denim dungaree dress and long-sleeved white top.


“Wear this. Be ready for noon.”


She left without another word and Willow silently seethed.


Eighteen years old…I am nearly eighteen damn years old.


She kicked the clothes off the end of her bed and brought her knees up to her chest, pouting for a minute. She knew how that outfit looked on her and she looked like a child.


She felt like a child.


Remembering how Tara had transformed her at New Year’s, she decided it was time to transform herself.


She could show her mother she could be trusted to look presentable enough for the cronies at the club. Just because her wardrobe contained lots of bright yellows and fuzzy pinks didn’t mean she couldn’t try for something a little more elegant. She’d never even been given the chance. So she decided to take it instead.


Her mom would just have to deal with it.


A plan started to form in her mind.


She checked her watch.


She should have just enough time, as long as she was quick and wasn’t too fussy.


She jumped out of bed, dressed in some old clothes, grabbed her wallet and snuck out the back of the house.


As long as she wasn’t delayed, her parents would never even know she left.


She hurried to the mall where there were no less than three generic chain hairdressers. Willow chose the one that was the least full and got seated almost immediately after refusing a wash. This was an in and out job.


“Cut it all off!” she announced heartily as the young man who was to cut her hair stood behind her.


He arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow.


“All of it?”


Willow’s eyes widened.


“Oh, well…” she replied sheepishly, “Not…all of it.”


She brought her hand to just above her shoulder.


“Maybe like, to here.”


After a few checks that she was happy with the length, the hairdresser got to cutting. Willow’s heart pounded a little as the snips of red fell past her arms to the floor. This was the first time she’d even come to a hairdresser without it being at her mother’s instruction. She marveled at how utterly ridiculous that was as the thought floating through her mind.


Finally, the hairdresser removed her gown and held a mirror up to the back for her to look. Willow’s smile broke out across her face.


“Perfect.”


She quickly paid and left, the bounce in her step matching the bounce in her new ‘do. She walked right past Sears, past the ‘trendy’ stores where she’d probably run into Cordelia and to a store at the other side of the mall that Tara talked about but she’d never actually been to.


That was going to change today.


She approached the older lady at the register.


“Hi. I need a dress.”


The woman, wearing a dark brown, earthy dress that reached her ankles and a braid that went on forever, closed the stock book she’d been looking in and offered her attention.


“I’m sure we can help you. What is it for?”


Willow just smiled.


“For me.”


Forty minutes and no less than five dresses jostling inside store bags later, Willow dashed back across town and sneaked back into her house. It was as quiet as it ever was and she wasn’t caught even when she slammed the door a little too loudly.


She tiptoed back up to her room and laid her new dresses out on her bed. She was still smiling from ear-to-ear; she loved each and every one of them.


Some were bright, some were darker; some were plain and some had designs; some were evening wear; some were daytime; some toed the line and could be used as both but she had picked each one herself and was looking forward to wearing them.


She picked out the one she was going to wear; it was soft, long-sleeved and burgundy with paler red circles blended into the print. It was so comfortable, Willow felt like she was wrapped in a blanket.


She checked the time and had just enough to give it a quick iron before pulling it on. She resisted her brightly colored leggings and went for the black ones with the flecks of silver and a pair of grey boots that matched nicely.


She brushed through her hair again, finding it odd when the bristles touched her skin on the back of her neck. Finally, she looked at herself in the mirror and smiled.


Today was her day.


She skipped downstairs, where her parents were getting their coats on at the door.


Sheila looked at her, surprised.


“Willow, you cut off your hair!”


Willow brushed her palm over the back of her hair and over her now-exposed neck.


“It’s just a sudden whim I had.”


Sheila peered at her and Willow realized she was trying to figure out had it been like that when she woke her up.


“I like it,” she said in a reasoned tone, though still threw a discerning eye over the outfit, “That’s not what I picked out.”


“Do you not think I look nice, mom?” Willow asked, with a purposefully sweet smile.


“I think you look lovely, sweetheart,” Ira interjected and Willow beamed.


“Thanks, dad.”


“You do look nice,” Sheila added on, her tone unsure but ultimately accepting, “Well…lets go then.”


Willow grinned.


Victory.


She followed her parents out to the car and was smug the whole ride to the country club. In fact, it lasted right up until they entered the restaurant and she was reminded of where they were. For an expensive club, the place was decorated with cheap heart cut-outs and lackluster red balloons.


Worse: their dining companions.


Dickie Babcock looked about as uncomfortable in his shirt and tie as Willow would have been in her dungaree dress. She momentarily felt pity for him.


They were made to sit together at the table, exchanging sour looks and bumped elbows for the entirety of the brunch.


After their plates were cleared, Dickie’s mother Judy looked toward them with hopeful eyes, completely oblivious to the animosity between them.


“Why don’t you two go have a walk around the grounds? It’s a lovely, crisp day. Beautiful time for a stroll.”


“Oh, I’m sure Willow would love to,” Ira interjected before Willow could protest.


They both eyed each other and grudgingly stood; Dickie throwing his soiled napkin straight onto the tablecloth.


Willow crossed her arms over her chest as they walked out from the restaurant into the courtyard.


“Don’t try anything,” she said guardedly, and Dickie just scoffed.


“As if.”


“You tried to kiss me on New Year’s,” Willow retorted with a scowl.


Dickie’s top lip curled with disgust.


“My parents told me I had to ‘cause no one else would.”


Willow looked down and swallowed audibly.


Ouch.


Except someone did. A very beautiful someone.


“Yeah well I’d rather be anywhere but here,” Willow shot back, “I’d rather hang out with a tarantula than with you.”


Dickie rolled his eyes, a slow and concentrated effort to make sure Willow knew just how annoyed he was.


“I don’t want to be hanging out with you either!” he said, then added on in a mutter as he kicked some dirt in front of him, “I’m missing a comic writing seminar for this. Got the ticket weeks ago.”


Willow stopped by a stone wall separating the golf course. She sat on it and looked at Dickie, surprised.


“You write comics?”


“What’s it to you?” Dickie asked with narrowed eyes.


“Jeez, nothing,” Willow said with an annoyed click of her tongue, “I was just asking.”


Dickie considered her for a few moments, then said a word that barely left his lips.


“Sorry,” he said, some internal wall dropping, “My parents think it’s stupid and I should only be drawing for architecture or cartography or something.”


Willow resisted the urge to comment on him knowing a long word. But wow, could she relate to that.


And he said sorry.


Maybe she could try to make conversation.


“What do you like to draw?” she asked, still a little cagily but with some empathy showing, “I doodle sometimes.”


Dickie leaned up against the wall, hesitated a moment, then produced his phone and pulled up some pictures.


Willow’s eyebrows lifted right into her brow. They were impressive.


“These are really good,” she said, finally, sincerely.


She brought her hand up behind her neck, feeling the ends of her hair tickle her skin.


“If you want, you can go and I’ll cover for you.”


Dickie eyed Willow suspiciously.


“Why?”


Willow looked down at the grass and the dead patches at the base of the stones.


“Because I know what it’s like to have parents you can’t be yourself around.”


Dickie seemed to perk up at the idea but didn’t move, yet.


“How do I know you’re not gonna rat me out the second I leave?”


Willow shrugged.


“You don’t. But you’d rather be somewhere else, I’d rather be alone…seems like it works for both of us.”


Dickie played it over in his mind and then made a running start, calling back over his shoulder.


“I owe you one, Rosenberg.”


“We’re leaving at six!” Willow called after him, “I’ll meet you back here!”


“Got it!” Dickie called back, already several feet away.


Willow swung her legs off the wall and contemplated what to do.


The restaurant was out of bounds; she’d be questioned why Dickie wasn’t with her.


She didn’t particularly want to stay out here, with couples lounging on the grass having picnics or relaxing after brunch.


It just reminded her that she couldn’t be like that with Tara.


And never could?


She jumped down from the wall sharply, almost tripping over her boots but managing to steady herself without messing up her new dress. She smiled and shook her hair out. She was going to walk around and show her new look off to every damn person in this place.


Hours later, her shoes were making the patch of dead grass she’d jumped down onto earlier even larger as she paced back and forth.


Finally, Dickie jogged into view, securing his tie back around his neck.


Willow marched up to him, furious, and poked his chest.


“I told you six!”


“Chill, there was a creator there I got talking to,” Dickie replied with complete disregard for her anger, “My parents didn’t figure it out did they?”


“No, but my parents had to go to the airport!” Willow protested, “I had to pretend I wanted to stay here with you just so I could cover for you!”


Dickie paled.


“Oh god, they don’t think we’re,” he had to stop himself from gagging, “kissing do they?”


Willow’s face contorted in disgust.


“Ugh, you are such an ass. Why did I cover for you? I’m supposed to be watching my—” she stopped and shook her head, “I’m going. Bye.”


She stomped off at speed.


“Hey Rosenberg,” Dickie called after her and for some reason, Willow turned around, “Thanks.”


Willow just rolled her eyes and hurried out to call a car.


Now she was late. Late, late, late. She’d had plans to go home and change and eat and leisurely get to the Bronze to get a good spot for Tara’s show, but now she’d have to ask the driver to drop her right there and step on it!


The evening Sunnydale traffic decided to toy with her and she had to jump out near the Pump and speed-walk the rest of the way, cursing under her breath. She’d spent the day bored and alone and now she might miss Tara’s performance because of Dickie Dickhead Babcock.


When she finally got into the Bronze, she didn’t even try to scope out if Cordelia or anyone else was there. She didn’t have time, not today. Especially because she could hear Tara’s sweet voice already playing out over the speakers.


She could hear her, but not see her. There was a crowd and she had to fight her way through it until finally she pushed through a group of girls ogling Nate and she could see the stage.


Most importantly, she could see Tara, hugging the microphone stand like it was a lover and singing as sweetly into the microphone as if it was too.


Tara’s face lit up in surprise and delight but didn’t break stride when she spotted Willow. She lifted her hand to discreetly wiggle her fingers in a wave. Willow’s heart leaped into her throat and she waved back, awestruck. She’d listened to Tara sing for years but it never failed to make her burst with pride.


Willow bopped along to a few songs with not a care in the world.


Her dress swayed against her legs, her hair swung against her neck and she felt free.


Her heart sped up when she spotted Tara getting her saxophone secured around her neck. Willow really did love to watch her on the sax. Nate set up a backing keyboard track and fixed a guitar over his chest.


“We’d like to end the night with a new song we’re debuting for you here right now,” he said into his microphone, shooting a look over to Tara to confirm she was ready, “This is Secret Boo.”


Willow didn’t think too much about the name, she was too busy watching Tara’s mouth close around her mouthpiece and bellow out that beautiful, sultry sound.


Tara played the opening notes, gradually slowing until Nate’s guitar beat took over fully and Tara replaced her mouthpiece with her microphone pressed up close to her mouth.


Hush, shush, quiet down
Tilt those lips, no need to frown
Covert, furtive, underground
It don’t matter, I’ll still drown
In you
Oh, in you



If Willow thought Tara was getting up close and personal with the microphone stand before, it was practically molded to her body now. The song was erotic, making the hair on the back of Willow’s neck stand up.


You…
You’re my
Secret boo
You just can’t argue
That this thing ain’t true
You might think it grew
But it ain’t nothing new



Willow was entranced by Tara’s breathy voice but slowly her expression changed to confusion as the lyrics caught up in her brain.


Rooted like a willow tree
As deep in you as I can be
You call my name
You have me there
Clinging to the dirt of our affair



Willow’s face suddenly fell.


Everything started to feel hot and restricting; the distinct feel of panic rising.


You…
You’re my
Secret boo
You just can’t argue
That this thing ain’t true
You might think it grew
But it ain’t nothing new



Tara’s head tilted back and took in a long breath, while Nate sang an elongated note.


Now…


His breath hitched like he was about to launch into a fresh verse, but instead, he closed it with a grin and Tara took over the unexpected rap.


—boo I hope one day you hear me
I hope one day you feel me
I hope one day you know just how much I hold you dearly
You know you got me addicted
You know you got me afflicted
But I hold on tight to you because I know this ain’t constructed
We don’t have to broadcast it
But our thing ain’t the culprit
I’m spinning on your axis
Boo now please don’t bounce us



The crowd loved it and roared for Tara, who dropped her head for just a moment, before returning to her position at the microphone to taper off the song.


Secret boo
You make my vision skew…



Tara found Willow’s gaze in the crowd and lingered.


I’m just as scared as you
But I’ll see this through
Because I—



Tara winked and pursed her lips as if she was blowing a kiss.


—‘m your secret boo too


Nate played them out on the guitar, while Tara caught her breath and enjoyed the praise they were getting from the crowd.


“Goodnight Sunnydale!” Nate called out and the group of girls to the side of Willow squealed.


Willow thought she was going to be sick.


Her heart was pounding between her ears and every person bumping into her felt like a steamroller about to flatten everything in her life.


She did the only thing she could think of.


She ran.


She always did.


The crowd was just as dense as it had been when she came in, if not more so, making Willow struggle to get through. She worked herself into a frenzy by the time she pushed herself through the back doors onto the alleyway behind. She put her back up against the wall and cast her eyes furtively around for anyone that might be staring at her funnily.


No one else was there, so she focused on catching her breath.


She had almost recovered, externally at least, when Tara appeared through the doors, momentarily letting out the noise pollution of the follow-up band before they banged shut again.


“There you are,” Tara said, her face bright as she practically floated over, “You look so pretty.”


She put her hands on Willow’s neck and ran her fingers through the ends of Willow’s hair.


“This dress and your hair! I love it. You look beautiful.”


Willow stepped out of Tara’s grasp, her facial muscles tense. Tara frowned.


“Are you okay?”


Willow wouldn’t meet her gaze.


“How could you?” she asked, her voice echoing.


Tara immediately felt tiny, but she had no idea why.


“I-I don’t understand.”


“That song!” Willow wailed, although in a whisper.


“Was it the rap?” Tara asked, looking down with embarrassment and her voice grew quiet, “I knew I should never have let Nate convince me to do that.”


Willow had actually been impressed, and more than a little turned on, by the rap. That made everything so much worse.


“No!” she protested, and could see the stunned look in Tara’s eye, “You sang a song about me, publicaly! You used my name!”


Tara shook her head quickly, resolute.


“I would never out you like that. It was coded, no one knew, not even Nate knows who it’s about, honey—”


“Don’t call me that!” Willow hissed again, throwing her arms up, “You made it all, all…sexual!”


“It was a metaphor, I w-was talking about emotions,” Tara replied, a tight knot forming in her belly, “I wasn’t trying—“


“Stop! Just stop!” Willow spat and she watched Tara’s eyes crease, but not from that lovely smile that usually graced her face.


“I’m sorry,” Tara replied, her voice strained as she struggled to swallow a lump, “I would never have…I would never hurt you on purpose.”


She tried to reach out but Willow slapped her hand away and immediately regretted it. Unable to take the hurt look on Tara’s face, she turned and pounded the pavement as fast as her boots would allow, hearing Tara’s pained voice slowly get lost in the wind.


“Willow, I’m sorry!”


Willow just kept walking, her own demons screaming loud enough to drown anything else out.


Turning on the opposite end of the street Willow walked onto, another young woman was running away from her demons. Both lost in their own worlds, they didn’t realize they were on the same path as each other until they collided.


“Sorry, sorry,” Willow spoke in a winded tone, her vision hazy for a moment until it settled and she realized she recognized her bumping buddy, “Buffy.”


Buffy seemed startled to hear her name, then relaxed when she saw who it was.


“Willow,” she said, filling an awkward lull pretty quick when she noticed Willow’s ‘do, “Hey, you cut your hair. It looks great.”


Willow blushed, curling the ends of her hair between her fingers.


“Uh, yeah. Thanks. It’s new,” she said, finding herself oddly nervous to be around the person she’d known as a sister for years, “Must be on your way somewhere important.”


Buffy let out a sigh.


“Just home to mope.”


“Mope?” Willow asked voice etched with both concern and curiosity.


Buffy rolled her eyes.


“Dumped. On Valentine’s Day.”


“Oh,” Willow replied, face falling into sympathy, “I’m really sorry. That sucks.”


Buffy just nodded and despite everything, Willow hated to see her friend in pain.


“Do you want to talk about it?” she offered sincerely.


Buffy looked at Willow for a long moment, then finally cracked smiled; a mix of relief and the comfort borne from friendship.


“My place?”


Willow smiled back the same way and nodded. They walked to Revello Drive, cracking easy jokes that told of their comfortable bond but also their lack of communication in a while.


When they arrived, Buffy was pounding the staircase before the front door had even closed and Willow was following close behind.


Joyce looked up from her position on the couch, channel-surfing and brightened as the two sped past her.


“Oh, Willow, how lovely to see you!”


“Thanks, Mrs. Summers, you too!” Willow called back as she quickly ascended the stairs with Buffy, as she had so many times before and then flew by the first bedroom, “Oh hey Dawnie.”


“Hi W—” Dawn started to reply, clearly excited to see her, but Buffy pulled them into her room before she could even finish.


Buffy opened the door to her bedroom and the first thing to strike Willow was how different it looked. Buffy had changed the position of the bed, taken down all of the posters that had been there before and added in more lamps in what seemed like an attempt at ‘mood lighting’.


“You changed your room,” Willow commented a bit unnecessarily, her hand reaching across her body to grab her opposite arm, “I guess it’s been a while.”


Buffy perched on the end of her bed and nodded solemnly.


“Yeah, it has.”


Willow looked at her friend, the one who’d changed her life and high school experience so much, and just saw sadness. She couldn’t hold a grudge when Buffy’s eyes were so forlorn. She came and sat right beside her on the bed. She put her hand on top of hers and offered a kind smile.


“He must have been pretty special.”


Buffy’s shoulders slumped and she leaned her head on Willow’s shoulder.


“I thought so. I just totally fell for him.”


“What happened?” Willow asked, giving Buffy a sidelong hug.


Buffy was silent for a long moment.


“He just changed after we…”


Willow nodded along, then her eyes widened.


“Oh, OH! Wow!” she said, unable to hide the surprise, “You guys…?”


Buffy blushed and nodded.


“Yeah. I called you to talk about it but it rang out.”


Willow paused. She had seen a missed call or two from Buffy, but she’d ignored them.


On purpose.


To make Buffy see how it felt.


She felt guilty now.


“I’m really sorry.”


“No big,” Buffy replied, but her tone indicated otherwise.


“Yes, big,” Willow protested, putting her arm around Buffy’s shoulders, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. He sounds like a jerk.”


Buffy sighed and sat back up, rubbing her eyes.


“I guess I got caught up in the secrecy of it all,” she said wistfully, then further explained off Willow’s look, “He was older. It was…thrilling. I’d sneak out at night and meet in places no one would see us, like the graveyard.”


Willow’s eyes widened as much as physically possible and Buffy grimaced as she heard her own words back.


She flopped back onto her bed.


“I think I lost my damn mind,” she reasoned, shaking her head, “And somehow I think I still love him. But it just couldn’t…work. He decided to move to LA to make it hurt less, but it doesn’t.”


She made her hands blew up and looked to the ceiling sadly.


Willow lay down beside her, both on their backs, looking upward.


“Was it, um…well, I saw you hanging out with this other girl sometimes…”


Buffy covered her face with her hands.


“Oh her. Yeah, she just showed up one day. She’s the one who kept convincing me to sneak out and stuff. She was intriguing. But then she fell in with an even worse crowd. I ended up knocking her out when she tried to fight me one night.”


“You knocked someone out?!” Willow asked in disbelief, “Jeez, Buffy, no wonder you haven’t been available.”


Buffy crossed her arms over her chest.


“I guess I got caught up in the bad girl vibe for a while. The excitement, the naughtiness…the leather.”


Willow frowned.


“I don’t think the cleavage-y slut-bomb look is you, Buff.”


Buffy actually chuckled.


“I don’t think so either,” she said, turning her face toward Willow with a smile and taking a moment to appraise her outfit, “I like this look on you, though. It’s…surprisingly subdued.”


She glanced down at Willow’s feet kicking at the end of the bed.


“Are those the boots I gave you for your last birthday?”


Willow brightened and nodded.


“Uh huh.”


“I didn’t think you liked them,” Buffy admitted. She’d never seen Willow wear them.


“I did, I do!” Willow replied resolutely, “I was just…waiting for the right moment I guess.”


Buffy’s grin grew curious.


“And tonight was the night?” she prompted, raising an eyebrow, “Trying to impress someone?”


Willow’s face changed, noticeably and Buffy shot up, mouth hanging open.


“Has Xander finally seen the light?”


“No! God no,” Willow protested, feeling a wave of what could only be described as ‘ickiness’ and she wondered how she ever believed she had a crush on him.


“Someone else taken your fancy?” Buffy teased, poking Willow in the belly, “Come on, you have to tell me!”


Willow sat up against the headboard and clutched one of Buffy’s pillows to her chest.


She would have to leave, right now, if she wanted to keep getting away with this.


She couldn’t look into Buffy’s eyes and lie.


“It's complicated,” she answered finally, very aware of the passing seconds and the intent look on her friend’s face.


Buffy’s brow creased in confusion.


“Why complicated?”


Willow sighed and steeled herself.


What was happening? Was she actually about to say—


“It's complicated… because of Tara.”


Her heart was racing and she felt on the verge of puking, but she managed to keep it in so that was a plus. More tentative seconds passed as she moved between her eyes boring into Buffy’s face for a reaction, and looking away to avoid one.


“Tara?” Buffy asked, bewildered, “Your friend from across the street? You mean Tara has a crush on Xander?”


Willow’s eyes shut tight and she shook her head.


“No. Never mind.”


Buffy put a hand on Willow’s leg.


“I know I’m missing something here. Help me— Oh!”


All the air rushed from Willow’s lungs.


Why had she done this?


This was everything she was terrified of. Her mouth opened before her brain caught up as she rushed to explain.


“There's something between us. It-it wasn't something I was looking for. It's just powerful.”


Buffy stood up and awkwardly massaged the back of her own neck. She paced up and down the length of the bed and forced a cheerful tone as she processed what Willow was telling her.


“Well, there you go, I mean, you know, you have to — you have to follow your heart, Will. And that's what's important, Will.”


Willow’s gaze faltered.


“Why do you keep saying my name like that?”


“Like what Will?” Buffy asked in that same painfully chirpy tone.


Willow’s eyes stayed painfully open because if they closed for a second she’d burst into tears.


“Are you freaked?”


“What? No, Will, d—” Buffy started, then stopped herself and sighed, “No.”


She sat back on the bed and looked Willow in the eye.


“No, absolutely no to that question.”


Willow felt the sincerity and while half of her was screaming ‘panic, panic, panic’, some part of her stayed grounded and recognized she had an opportunity to release all the dark, painful thoughts she’d been wrapping herself up in all these months.


“I am,” she said, barely audible.


“What?” Buffy asked softly.


Willow very slowly, hesitantly and while shaking met Buffy’s eye.


“F-Freaked,” she replied with a tremor in her voice, “I want her but I don’t want to be…”


Her head dropped into the pillow and she started to sob. Buffy didn’t hesitate for a second, she wrapped her in a hug, as best she could in this position.


“We can’t control who we fall for,” she comforted, then added on wryly, “Or I wouldn’t have fallen for such a monster.”


A laugh broke through Willow’s tears, shocking her enough to stop them. She lifted her head and swiped at her eyes until Buffy got up and offered her a tissue.


“Thanks,” Willow said, and looked at Buffy in such a way that they both knew she meant for more than the tissue.


Buffy took both of Willow’s cheeks in her hands and smiled.


“You’re my best friend, and nothing could change that. Especially something that makes you happy. Or someone.”


Willow thought she could actually feel pressure evaporate from above her shoulders. Her negative feelings hadn’t just disappeared, but they’d lifted for that moment, and even when they pressed down again, the weight wouldn’t seem so heavy.


Buffy pressed a quick kiss on the highest center point of Willow’s forehead and released her again.


“Hey, you wanna order a pizza? All this reuniting makes for quite the hunger pang.”


“Yeah, I’d love some pizza,” Willow replied through a tearful laugh. She hadn’t eaten since brunch and the reminder of food made her stomach ache in a much better way than it had been just minutes before.


Buffy went about ordering the pizza, while Willow cleaned herself up and gathered her thoughts.


It still scared her when she thought too much about it, but there was a definite relief that the person she cared the most about in the world, apart from Tara, had embraced her after she revealed what she had considered her biggest shame.


“Pizza’s coming!”


Willow trashed her tissues and hurried back from the bathroom, the thought of the pizza making her stomach rumble.


When the pizza arrived, they sat on the floor together and dug in, catching up on some of the more minor aspects of the last few months of their lives.


After they’d gorged themselves, they lay on their backs on the floor, both quietly contemplative.


“Can I ask you something?” Buffy asked after a long time of companionable silence, which Willow enjoyed greatly.


She was so used to the lonely kind.


“Yeah,” she answered softly.


Apparently, she was an open book tonight.


“You’ve known Tara forever right?”


Willow nodded evenly. Buffy propped herself up on her elbow.


“And you’ve never dated anyone else?”


“No…” Willow replied, starting to become unsure of Buffy’s tone, “Not really.”


Buffy finally just asked what she was thinking.


“So how do you know you’re not confusing your friendship feelings?”


Willow paused. It was easier to speak like this, staring upward with nothing staring back but a white ceiling with no agenda.


“Because I wish I could tell you I was and not have to deal with…everything. I wish I could walk away. But then she looks at me and…I just…I can’t describe it.”


Buffy lay back down.


“I get that,” she sighed wistfully, “The undescribable.”


“In,” Willow corrected.


“In what?” Buffy asked with her mouth pursing, trying to figure it out.


Willow just chuckled.


“Insane, as in I must be,” she said, picturing Tara’s smile and trying to forget how they’d left things. Tara was probably furious at her for blowing up like that, she thought, “Insane for her and not in a friendship way. Because, no offense Buffy, but I never looked at you and thought your lips looked too dry and I should fix that with my own mouth.”


Willow blushed as she realized what she said, but Buffy seemed to be thoughtfully musing it over.


“And you think that about her?”


“Only once,” Willow reasoned, a wrinkle slowly growing taut in her furrowing brow, “Or twice. A day. Since we were 11.”


“What about Xander?” Buffy pressed, not to persuade, just to understand, “You’ve been crazy about him the whole time I’ve known you.”


“Xander was like a surrogate,” Willow explained, immediately feeling a sense of sadness and loss, “Girls had to like guys, so I picked a guy. I even made myself believe it for a long time. It’s so weird because if I hadn’t fixed this idea of having a crush on him as part of my life, we might not have even stayed friends and he is a really good friend.”


A melancholy breath pushed past her lips.


“Or, was. We’re not friends now after my failed seduction attempt, of course.”


Buffy nodded along, then her head turned sharply.


“Wait…what?!”


Willow sighed, turned on her side and filled Buffy in on that whole debacle. Buffy’s eyebrows grew further and further upward until they almost disappeared into her hairline.


“Damn…I really have missed a lot.”


“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it didn’t happen,” Willow added on quickly after the story, “But…I got used to having him around, the big lug. But I daren’t face the wrath of Cordelia.”


Buffy shrugged.


“They broke up, you know.”


“They did?” Willow asked, and now that she thought about it, he hadn’t seen him hanging out of her at school, but she had been running the opposite direction any time she saw either of them.


“Like, during the summer,” Buffy confirmed, then continued in realization, “Actually, it must have been right around that time…”


Willow covered her face with her hands.


“Great. I’m sure he absolutely hates me, even though he’s way better off without Queen C. I feel like I’ll be leaving a trail of destruction when I leave for Claremont.”


“Claremont?” Buffy asked, wondering what else she missed, but was able to figure this one out in time, “Wait, you got into college?! Where you wanted, Harvey Milk??”


“Harvey Mudd,” Willow amended, smiling bashfully and a little uncertainly.


“That’s the one!” Buffy exclaimed and rolled over to throw her arms around Willow. “That’s great, Will. That’s really great.”


Willow’s shortened name didn’t sound so weird anymore.


“I’ve been slacking off so much I’ll be lucky to get a place at UCSD. My mom would be happy if I stayed local though.”


“I’ll come visit,” Willow offered, then tacked on, “If you want me too. I won’t be that far away.”


“Of course I do,” Buffy replied as if Willow was nuts to think she’d say any different. She paused and sat up, cross-legged, “I know things have been distant between us, but I don’t want that anymore.”


Willow sat up in the same way.


“It’s not your fault.”


Buffy put her hands on Willow’s pointed knees.


“Will, I miss you. And it is my fault. I've been wrapped up in my own stuff. I've been a bad friend.”


“Well, I haven't been Miss Available either,” Willow replied in an apologetic tone, “I-I kept secrets. I hid things from everyone.”


She looked down for a moment.


“I wanted to tell you, but I was so scared.”


“You can tell me anything,” Buffy replied emphatically, “I love you. You're my best friend.”


Willow looked back up, smiling in delight.


“Me, too. I love you too.”


They leaned in and embraced tightly until Willow pulled back a tad.


“Platonically.”


They both started laughing and Buffy picked up the pillow she’d been leaning on and smacked Willow with it, who giggled, feeling almost high at being able to make such a joke so freely. When they settled again, Buffy started and stopped talking a few times.


“So why aren’t you with her tonight…?” Buffy questioned cautiously, “Valentine’s…?”


Her voice dipped and Willow knew she was reminded of the very recent break-up.


“We…I…” she didn’t want to admit to how she’d acted, “It’s complicated?”


Buffy nodded in understanding.


“You know what isn’t complicated?” she said suddenly, jumping up, “Ice-cream!”


Buffy hurried off to get them a tub and two spoons but turned back at the door at looked at Willow, unusually shy.


“Will… you wanna stay over? Have a slumber party?”


Willow smiled softly. She could see the look in her friend’s eye. Buffy needed her, probably to have a good cry, and Willow had already had hers. There was only one answer, the truth.


“I’d love to.”



Tara crept slowly along the street from The Bronze, her feet dragging behind her.


She was worn out from a restless night of sleep and her guitar case was heavy on her back.


She’d run home, a mess, after Willow had blown up at her and Nate had been kind enough to drop her saxophone home, but the guitar had been left behind by accident since Nate had had to pack up by himself.


Thankfully, Tara had her name and phone number on the case and the owner of The Bronze had called her when he found it that morning. The last thing Tara had wanted was to face the world or even get out of bed, but she grudgingly dressed and headed downtown to collect it.


As she passed by the Espresso Pump, she spotted a familiar bobbing head of red hair sitting alone at a table.


She hesitated, unsure whether to go in or not, but her heart hurt too much to just walk away. It was fairly busy and Tara stood out with her guitar case on her back, but Willow still didn’t spot her until she got to the table.


“Willow,” she said softly, eyes creased with pain instead of their usual brightness. She sat at a slight angle on the opposite chair to accommodate her case and reached across the table, taking both of Willow’s hands, “Can we please talk?”


Willow took in a sharp breath as she took in Tara’s appearance. Tara always put herself together nicely but her clothes were disheveled, her hair brushed but with no care in her parting. Her eyes were red raw and she’d clearly been crying all night.


Willow frowned but didn’t move her hands away and began to return a tender look. She opened her mouth to speak but before she could, a large circular mug was placed in front of her, a little chocolate heart sitting in the foam.


“Mocha, right?” a male voice asked, his eyes slowly moving between the two women.


Willow looked up at him and felt Tara’s hands snatch away from hers.


She didn’t like it.


She really didn’t like when she realized she was usually the one to do the snatching. Was that how Tara felt when she did it to her?


She realized two sets of eyes were on her and looked between the two of them, scrambling her brain for a response.


“Right,” she said eventually to the boy, swallowing quickly as she glanced back to Tara, “Um…”


Tara felt her stomach turn. The boy was holding another mug of plain black coffee, which he took a casual sip from.


He wasn’t wearing a uniform.


Willow was not receiving table service.


“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t—” she stammered, almost falling as she turned around herself to get up out of what seemed to be ‘his’ seat, “I’m sorry.”


The boy just nodded at her cordially.


“Hey. I’ve heard your music. I like your sound.”


“T-Thanks,” Tara replied, averting her gaze as she tried desperately to get out of there, “I j-just came in for a coffee, so I-I’ll leave you to your…”


She gestured at the table and hurried off to join the coffee line, the only dignified escape route possible. Unfortunately, there was already a few people waiting and she ended up only a foot away from them, arms crossed over her chest to hold herself in place.


At the table, Willow desperately sought Tara’s gaze out of the corner of her eye but to no avail.


“So, this is nice,” the boy said evenly, now sitting opposite her, “You. Me. Coffee.”


He’d asked to buy her a coffee when they were in line together and Willow had said yes after floundering for a moment, from years of having politeness broken into her.


“Yeah. I like coffee,” Willow reasoned and unable to take the thrum of awkwardness between them or the waves of pain she could feel in spades from Tara.


She couldn’t take it. She stood up and brought her mug with her.


“Um, I was actually going to get this to-go, so…”


The boy, sweet and affable, stood with her like this was a normal way to have an exchange.


“Maybe we could do it again…officially some time?”


Time slowed down for Willow for a moment.


Was this happening?


This was happening.


There was little to misinterpret; this boy was asking her out.


Here it was, the thing she thought she wanted most of all for so many years — and it felt empty. A boy — a nice boy, a cool boy — was asking her out and she felt…nothing. And ‘nothing’ was the opposite of what she felt for Tara.


For Tara, she felt everything.


Being with Tara terrified her, but not being with Tara terrified her more. She couldn’t do this, she wouldn’t — to either of them. It was time to take a step, even if it was just a baby one.


“I’m sorry, I’m seeing someone,” she said, and actually heard the sharp intake of breath from the line, “I’m going to get them to put this in a to-go cup. I’ll… see you.”


The boy just nodded once, dejection hidden in the purse of his lips.


“Yeah, sure. Bye.”


Willow took out her wallet and the boy held up a hand, looking at her for a sincere moment.


“Please.”


“Well, um, thanks,” Willow said quickly, and moved off quickly for both of their sakes, “For the mocha. Really kind of you.”


She turned away from his desolate smile and stepped into line with Tara; their shoulders brushing together.


Tara’s heart was hammering and she was too scared to look at Willow. Her eyes stayed fixed ahead unnaturally.


Until she felt the barest hint of a pinky brush against her own. Her eyes flickered over to Willow who smiled back, a little sad but also full of sincerity.


Willow saw the lump protrude in Tara’s throat as she swallowed. She stepped in for her when they moved up in the line and the barista looked at them expectantly.


“Can I get a medium hazelnut macchiato and an extra to-go cup please?”


She paid and they took their respective cups when they were ready and headed toward the exit. The chatter and music got fainter with each step taken away from the busy street.


They wordlessly moved toward the direction of their own houses, from the main town to the quieter residential streets.


Willow couldn’t help but notice Tara sneaking glances and smiling like she couldn’t believe they were walking together each time their eyes connected.


Why had Willow never seen that before? She’d looked and watched and witnessed those looks for… for years when she actually thought about it, but she’d never appreciated the entirety of what it meant.


If I can make someone else that happy, why can’t I make me that happy?


When they were on an abandoned, sleepy street with no one else around, Tara brought up a hand to shyly tuck some hair behind her own ear.


“Um, about—”


“That was nothing,” Willow cut in quickly, splaying a hand out in front of her and shaking it from side to side indicatively, “He just arrived at the same time as me and asked to buy me a coffee and my brain spazzed for a moment. It really was nothing, really.”


She did the sneaky glance this time and made sure their eyes locked.


“I wouldn’t do that to you.”


Tara swallowed and Willow watched relief flood her face. It brought back her guilt and she began to wring her hands around her coffee cup.


“I was actually on my way home from Buffy's. I was gonna bring you a coffee as a peace offering.”


Tara stopped, her eyebrows rising closer to her hairline.


“Wait. You guys hung out? That's great, I'm so happy for you!” she said, flinging her arms around Willow, then pulling back sheepishly and falling back into step with her, “I, um, I know you’ve missed her.”


“Yeah,” Willow said, smiling softly as her breath caught a little from Tara’s embrace, “Yeah, it was good. It was…good.”


Tara nodded agreeably but her fingers kept tapping her cup.


“Before, I, um…I actually meant about last night.”


“Tara,” Willow started, taking in a deep breath, “Tara, I’m so sorry. For how I acted. You didn’t deserve it.”


Tara quickly shook her head.


“I should never have sung a song about you without checking with you first.”


“No, I overreacted. I got scared but I should have just talked to you,” Willow pressed, then smiled to herself, “It’s really flattering actually. The first song I’ve ever had written about me.”


Tara looked down bashfully.


“Not the first.”


Willow smiled slowly with a hint of intrigue. They fell back into silence for a while, both in their own thoughts.


“Tara?” Willow said eventually, her voice echoing softly.


Tara looked in her direction and Willow spoke again, only loud enough to be a whisper on the wind, between them and nothing or no one else.


“Wait for me?”


Tara felt Willow’s pinky fully curl around hers and her heart soared as high as it had ever been.


“Forever,” she answered without a beat, holding Willow’s pinky in place.


Willow’s heart fluttered and she looked at Tara, who just smiled and held their fingers tighter together.


Willow squeezed back in the same way and just gazed at her from the side.


This was the most Willow had ever allowed herself to feel everything Tara outside of their bedroom walls. And it was nice. It was really, really nice. She couldn’t stop smiling.


They walked on the road instead of the sidewalk and stopped between their houses, neither wanting to part.


“My parents are out of town,” Willow said, trying not to fidget with the lid on her cup, “Do you want to come inside?”


“I’d love to,” Tara answered simply, but full of joy.


Willow brought them over to her house and inside and felt oddly awkward as if she’d never had Tara in her home before.


“Um, do you want a different drink or anything?”


“Oh, no, I’m good,” Tara replied, waving her half-full cup of coffee, “Actually can I use the bathroom?”


Willow finally snapped out of it; it was Tara, for god’s sake.


“Yeah, of course, you know where it is. Here, I’ll take your cup.”


She took Tara’s cup and watched her go up the stairs. Very definitively watched a certain part of her sway with each step.


Her cheeks reddened, but she didn’t look away until Tara’s body curved out of sight. Willow looked around and wondered whether to go into the living room, but that was still a little bit too public to the street outside, at least for the smooch or two she planned on stealing. Curtains closed during the day was suspicious.


She skipped upstairs to her bedroom.


“Will?” Tara’s voice called a minute or two later from outside the bathroom.


“In my room,” Willow called back.


Tara walked in, where Willow was sitting on her bed, the coffee cups still in her hands, grinning.


“I just took a sip of my mocha and then your hazelnut latte and it was basically liquid-y coffee-light Nutella.”


Tara set her case down under Willow’s window and walked over to her.


“Let me try,” she replied, sitting beside Willow and taking each cup to try, “You’re right, that’s really good.”


“How have we never tried this before?” Willow giggled, “We’ll make our own blend and be millionaires!”


Tara returned the laugh and Willow couldn’t help scooting over and planting a kiss on her lips. Tara recovered from the surprise and quickly returned it. Willow pressed her palm against Tara’s cheek and caressed her jaw while pulling away slowly.


“Sorry. I’ve been turned into a crook,” she said, adding on sheepishly, “To steal a kiss.”


“You can’t steal what’s freely given,” Tara replied sweetly.


Willow had a flashback to when they were kids; Tara giving her the Barbie she wanted to play with even though Tara had been playing with it first. Willow hadn’t had to say anything; Tara just knew.


“Tell me about Buffy,” Tara broke Willow out of her thoughts, “If you want. Last time we talked about it, she wasn’t being very communicative.”


Willow drank the last bit of her mocha, left her empty cup on the nightstand and lay down on her stomach. She started recounting the story to Tara, who slowly moved closer as she finished her coffee, then lay on her back alongside Willow when she was done.


“So, yeah, she ended up pretty weepy for the night what with being dumped on Valentine’s Day, but we had great friend-time and it just felt so good to connect again.”


“That’s really wonderful,” Tara empathized, then corrected herself, “Not about the break-up. That must have been very difficult. I-I’m guessing. I don’t know her.”


Willow’s brow fell sadly.


“Tara…”


Tara just smiled it off.


“I got you something,” she said, changing the subject as she threw her legs off the bed and walked over to her guitar case, “For Valentine’s Day.”


She opened the little pouch on the front, while Willow looked on, curious. Tara turned toward her again, something closed in her palm.


“I was going to give it to you last night but…um. Anyway. I knew you wouldn’t want something, uh…obvious. But I thought this was pretty.”


She laid back down and opened her hand, revealing a pink-purple crystal. She offered it to Willow shyly, who took it and turned it over in her hand.


“It’s gorgeous,” as she turned it and watched the reflection of the rock in the sun shining in the window, “So cool.”


“It's called a Doll’s Eye crystal,” Tara explained, “I had to write a jingle for a class and I recognized this in a store window. My grandma, my mom’s mom, was big into crystals and my mom keeps a small collection of them.”


“It's like a family heirloom?” Willow asked cautiously.


Tara shook her head.


“No, I bought a new one for you.”


“Oh good,” Willow replied with a relieved sigh, “I just wouldn’t have been comfortable.”


Tara nodded understandingly.


“I went in and asked the owner about it. He said it was for spellbinding and… you’re spellbinding to me.”


Willow suddenly became very aware of her heartbeat.


“He also said it electrifies reactions,” Tara added on, “Whatever that’s supposed to mean.”


She grew more nervous as Willow remained silent.


“I-if you don’t like it—”


“I love it,” Willow interrupted, clutching Tara’s hand, “I-I feel bad. I didn’t even remember what day it was, meanwhile, you got me this cool gift and wrote me that cool song.”


She looked up at Tara through her eyelashes.


“It was really cool, by the way. It was… sexy. I didn’t know you could sing like that. You know all…seductive and stuff.”


Tara felt a pressure in her stomach at the way Willow was looking at her.


“Y-you think I’m seductive?”


Willow reached up and brushed her fingers against Tara’s jawline, then tilted her chin down and leaned up to kiss her. Tara immediately melted, her body falling over toward Willow. Willow shifted herself onto her side and crossed her arms behind Tara’s neck, making it known certainly that she wanted Tara close.


Tara’s hand settled on Willow’s waist as she welcomed Willow’s tongue against her lips. She’d thought she’d blown it all last night and this was heaven.


The kissing got deeper and both of their hands migrated. Tara’s curved just slightly, so that her fingertips were brushing over the fabric on Willow’s ass and Willow’s palm was molded to Tara’s breast. Tara had just thrown a tank top under her shirt that morning, so this was as close to bare skin as Willow had ever felt. Without the thick material of a bra, the tightening of Tara’s nipple was playing out across her palm and driving her crazy.


Her other hand moved away from massaging Tara’s neck and brushed down Tara’s chest to where the hem of her shirt was riding up from the belabored breathing of its host. Her fingers connected with skin and she experienced the most erotic sensation of her young life: Tara moaning into her mouth.


Her hand bunched the material of Tara’s shirt for a moment, but she released it quickly in favor of her hand slipping beneath to find Tara’s skin again. Tara was a normal and healthy 98.6 degrees, but Willow’s fingertips still tingled and burned as they caressed what was underneath.


Tara felt like she couldn’t quite catch her breath, but it was suffocating in the best possible way. Willow’s hands and body were pressing into her in all sorts of ways and it was more than anything she’d ever felt before — Willow was near and far and always and everywhere and everything.


This was what they’d always had; secret moments shared in the heat of the afternoon, but today it felt more.


Tara was so caught up in it all, she didn’t realize Willow’s hand had crept lower until she suddenly felt the brush against the top of her panties that sent a wave of arousal flooding through her.


Willow paused and looked at her breathlessly.


“Should I stop?”


Tara was almost afraid to move.


“You d-don’t owe me anything.”


Willow dipped her hand a skosh lower and continued to fix Tara with an unbroken stare.


“Should I stop?”


Tara gulped.


“I-I want what you want,” she said, returning the intent look to make sure there was no confusion, “And only what you want.”


Willow kept Tara’s gaze for a few long seconds, then kissed each corner of Tara’s mouth. She left another kiss fully against Tara’s mouth, soft and sweet on her lips.


Tara felt Willow’s hand slide out from her underwear and breathed out once, just to calm and gather herself. That was okay. She would hate if Willow did anything she wasn’t comfortable with.


She was thrown off course again immediately though, when Willow just popped the button on her jeans, pulled down the fly and slid her hand back in, going right under her panties this time until there were fingers gliding and—


“Oh my god,” Tara rasped, fireworks going off behind her eyes.


Willow mouthed ‘whoa’ as she tentatively explored this new place. It felt similar to when she touched herself, but also very different too. Tara felt hotter and wetter and just so much more inviting.


Her fingers explored Tara’s lips and pretty quickly she felt a little bump.


Tara’s breath hitched and her thighs twitched and Willow was immediately bewitched.


She proceeded gently and brought her gaze up from her disappearing wrist to Tara’s face.


Tara’s cheeks were pink and her nostrils were flaring and she was biting on her bottom lip hard enough to nearly draw blood. Willow thought she’d never looked so beautiful.


She felt molten, deep in her core and light in her heart and dizzy in her mind.


It was intoxicating. Tara was intoxicating.


She had a little idea of what she was doing; she’d done it to herself plenty, but her fingers still explored, finding where Tara dipped and curved and feeling that wonderful wetness flow for her. It was the most exciting and satisfying sensory experience of her entire life.


She learned pretty quick that she loved the short moans Tara made when she brushed against her clit and brought the pads of two fingers up and over them repeatedly. She listened as Tara’s breath grew more and shallow.


Then there was a quick jerk and a caught breath and Tara was panting above and felt white-hot below.


Willow realized what had happened, what she’d made happen, and slowly grinned. She watched Tara’s face until her eyelids flicked open.


“You okay?” she whispered softly.


“Yeah,” Tara replied in the same way, unable to stop herself from smiling.


Willow kissed Tara’s forehead then her lips, soft and sweet like the one that had started it all. She reluctantly pulled her hand out, watching Tara exhale slowly at the same pace.


She glanced down at her hand and was kind of startled by the evidence making her fingers shimmer in the daylight. How did she clean off? She couldn’t remember what she did when she was alone. Nothing really, it was dark and she just rolled over and went to sleep. And it was never this much.


She had no idea of the etiquette here – was it rude to just wipe it off? Did she wait for it to dry, try to rub it off against her skin, excuse herself to go to the bathroom?


“Sweetie?” Tara asked, not for the first time.


Willow snapped to attention with several rapid blinks.


“Sorry?”


“Do you need this?”


Tara was shyly offering her a tissue, plucked from the box on her nightstand.


…or I could just do that.


Willow blushed and accepted it gratefully.


“Thanks.”


She twisted the tissue around her fingers and crumpled it on the nightstand. She then fixed up Tara’s open jeans, complete with an awkward little pat on the button when she tied it.


Tara watched Willow smile at her clumsily and reached up to brush some hair from Willow’s face. With the beginnings of strength returning to her, she pushed herself up and pressed their lips together. She used the leverage to softly push Willow onto her back while she lay alongside her, essentially reversing their positions. Willow bent her arm at a right angle above her head and Tara covered it, linking their hands together.


They kept kissing and Tara’s hand slowly crept down Willow’s arm, over the swell of her breasts and paused, palm flat on her stomach.


“Do you want…?” she asked lightly, no pressure.


Willow looked down at herself, wondering if she was about to have an experience that would change her forever.


Heck…that already just happened.


“I’m kinda nervous,” she admitted.


Tara followed her gaze down, and then back up again.


“Have you?”


Willow squirmed.


“Not with anyone else in the room.”


She paused, first with embarrassment, then shock as she realized something.


“I don’t cry anymore,” she whispered to herself.


She hadn’t even realized she’d been slowly absolving herself of her internal shame that she’d stopped crying immediately after pleasuring herself — if she could even call it that. It had always been more like hate fucking herself but lately, no…


“C-cry?” Tara asked, confused.


Willow’s eyes widened as she slowly navigated them toward Tara.


“Chai,” she covered, not very smoothly, “I don’t…chai anymore. Went through a phase. Back on the mochas.”


“Oh,” Tara replied, nodding along, used to Willow’s topic jumps, “D-Did you want me to get you another drink?”


Willow looked up at Tara, eyes glassy with vulnerability. She clutched Tara’s shirt and pulled her in.


“No, I want you to stay right here.”


She tucked her head into Tara’s neck and kissed below her ear.


“You can if you want.”


Tara ran her fingers down Willow’s hair.


“Do you want?”


Their eyes met and Willow nodded.


Tara smiled and played with the short ends.


“I really do love this cut.”


Willow blushed and reached to cover Tara’s hand, giving it a squeeze. Tara slid her hand onto Willow’s cheek and tilted her up for a kiss.


Willow relaxed, her fingers massaging Tara’s fingers until she was pulling her hand away.


Tara’s hand brushed over Willow’s knee and Willow suddenly froze.


“Um…”


Tara stopped and looked up, waiting for Willow to make the next move.


“We, can’t, um…” Willow gulped, “We can’t take our clothes off…a-anyone could walk in.”


She laughed nervously and Tara just looked at her kindly.


Both the front door and Willow’s bedroom door was locked; Willow’s parents weren’t even in the country and no one ever visited anyway, but she wasn’t about to argue. She remembered Willow freaking out at New Years and she would never want to make her uncomfortable.


“Show me what’s okay,” she said softly.


Willow melted under that soft, trusting and trustful gaze. She linked their hands again and shyly guided it under the skirt of her dress, then brought her grip up to the wrist, making Tara’s hand skate over her thighs.


Willow’s quite loose-fitting leggings suddenly felt very restrictive. She felt pressure over her pubic bone and goosebumps broke out across her flesh. Finally, Tara’s fingertips skated below her bellybutton and Willow thought it was so stupid that her body was reacting like this when Tara had probably grabbed the same spot in hugs or posing for photos a hundred times since her memory began.


Except then the elastic waistband on her leggings was giving way to Tara’s hand, and her underwear was accommodating the same bulge and then Tara was touching her somewhere she definitely never had before.


“Oh,” Willow breathed out.


Never had her mind offered so little thought, her mouth offered so little words and her body given her so, so much sensation.


Her neck arched into the pillows, straining her throat and causing the subsequent gasp to whimper into the air.


Tara was a very tactile person, in fact, it was the reason she got into music; being able to touch things in different ways and produce beautiful sounds spoke to her soul.


She was thinking about this because that little sound that got caught in Willow’s throat was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. It made her body react in ways she would never even be able to express or even the sweetest of chord progressions could ever replicate.


Two fingers glided Willow’s length, learning how she felt intimately. She laid her head on the pillow alongside Willow, enjoying watching her face as the expressions changed with each little movement.


She pressed her lips under Willow’s ear and almost immediately felt Willow’s face turning to hers and capturing her in a kiss. Tara’s hand stalled for just a minute in surprise, but a soft push as Willow’s hips lifted and returned to the bed made her fingers twitch again. They rolled over Willow’s clit and Tara felt a pulsation between them; she didn’t know if it was hers or Willow’s heartbeat.


The kiss got more heated and the pace of Tara’s rolling fingers only increased in kind.


Willow’s hand clutched the back of Tara’s shirt, then fell down to cup her butt. She squeezed and gasped simultaneously as the heat began to throb in her belly and spread out. It was entirely different to feeling an orgasm building by herself; the journey was as important as the end goal. The lack of control was surprisingly alluring. The intensity was…


She whimpered again as clenchings of pleasure rocked throughout her, followed by a rhythmic thumping inside that passed in seconds but held her in that moment for an age.


She had to blink several times for her vision to return from the firework/fuzzy screen hybrid it had momentarily turned into. She glanced over at Tara with scarlet cheeks and an awkward smile, who just pressed a warm kiss against her cheek. Tara slowly popped her hands from underneath Willow’s leggings, letting it rest on her fabric-clad thigh.


They lay together for a little while, silent; just being with each other.


“You okay?” Tara whispered against Willow’s neck.


Willow just smiled and nodded.


“Yeah.”


She was the best she’d ever felt, in fact.


Tara kissed Willow’s pulse point once, then twice; soft, barely there kisses that made Willow shiver right to the base of her spine.


Tara thought Willow might be cold and rolled over to reach for the blanket hanging off the end of the bed. On the way, something sharp dug into her lower back.


“Ow!”


Willow lifted her head to see what the problem was but was surprised to hear Tara giggling as she reached under herself and brought out the Doll’s Eye crystal.


“Why are you laughing?” Willow asked, lips quirked up in amusement.


Tara held the crystal up between them, twisting it around.


“In my jingle, I said the crystal would 'blow your mind'. I had no idea. I was just looking for a rhyme.”


Willow blushed, but couldn’t stop the amused twitch of her lips breaking out into a full-blown grin.


“I don’t think I ever thought that phrase could be literal,” she said, pressing her palms against her forehead where a thin layer of sweat was drying, “Seriously, I don’t even think I can remember the quadratic equation right now!”


They laughed together and naturally fell toward each other, pressed together at the hips and faces with barely any space between them at all. Tara brushed the hair from Willow’s face and Willow leaned right into it. She loved when Tara touched her like that; those little caresses that warmed her skin and lit the flame inside her.


They’d always been like this, she thought. Close. Drawn to each other. Physical, affectionate. And she’d always felt like it was something to hide.


Why…why?


Tara brought the crystal up and closed it into Willow’s palm.


“But seriously…I thought you could keep it and hold onto it when…when we're apart.”


Willow was drawn from one source of agony to another. She really hated thinking that in mere months…


“It’s beautiful,” she said as she closed her fist and held it against her heart, “So, um, have you gotten your ticket? Planned it all out? I can’t believe…I mean, I’m so glad you’re getting to do it. The Big Trip.”


“My mom is getting me the ticket as a late birthday gift when I graduate,” Tara replied, her eyes lighting up as she spoke, “But I have a pretty good idea. I’m going to start with skiing in New Zealand and I think I’m going to try a bungee jump there. Did you know that’s where bungee jumping originated?”


Willow shook her head, watching how animated and joyful Tara became as she spoke about the trip.


“I’ll keep going west from there. Australia, up through Asia…and maybe train across Europe or see some of Africa then come home through South America. It sounds like it’s nothing more than a quick hop when I say it like that, but I want to take in everything, see everything. I want to go on safari in South Africa like you did and see the Sydney Opera House at night. See the temples in Thailand, tour the cobbled streets of Rome, boat through the falls in the Amazon,” she gushed as she closed her eyes for a moment and basked in the anticipation. She opened her eyes again and looked at Willow, shyly, “All of your stories are what made me want to do this, you know. I was so jealous of all your adventures.”


Willow’s eyelids closed, feeling a stab of guilt. She never knew she’d been the source of Tara’s fascination with travel. She’d figured it was karma that her deception was what was taking Tara away from her.


“I-I lied,” she admitted, wincing as the words came out of her mouth.


Tara’s brow creased but she didn’t move away.


“What do you mean?”


Willow’s jaw tensed for a moment. She felt angry at her younger self for forcing her current self to deal with the fallout of this.


“I lied about doing all those things,” she said a bit more forcefully.


“…you didn’t go overseas?” Tara tried to deduce, even more, confused since she definitely remembered Willow being away, and missing her.


“I-I did, but…” Willow stopped and sighed, “It wasn’t like how I said it was. I was stuck inside hotel rooms. I never saw anything. I watched pay-per-view movies and ordered room service and if I was lucky the restaurant we went to in the evenings was a bit of a drive away and I got to see the area that way. I made it all up. I’m sorry.”


Tara’s hand paused in the middle of stroking Willow’s hair.


“Why did you say…?”


Willow looked down.


“Because I wanted to sound cool.”


“But I’ve always thought you were cool,” Tara replied, genuinely confused.


Willow’s head shot back up and even more embarrassingly, she felt tears starting to fall on her cheeks.


“Hey,” Tara replied softly, wrapping her up in a hug.


Willow lifted her sleeve to her eye and wiped it.


“Are you mad?”


“We were kids. It doesn’t matter,” Tara comforted, kissing the top of Willow’s head, “And you put the idea in my head, so I’m grateful. Don’t worry about it.”


Willow exhaled a shaken breath.


“Sorry,” she said, sniffling to herself, “I just wish…”


“What?” Tara replied gently.


Willow kept her glassy gaze on Tara’s.


“I just wish your trip is everything you dream it to be.”


Tara put her palm under Willow’s chin and lifted her up into a soft kiss.


“As close as a dream can be without you.”


That was the moment Willow realized that gazing into each other’s eyes was more than just a cliché.


And even if it is…I’ll happily be one.


Several hours later, when the sun had already set, Tara walked across the street in darkness and let herself into her house. She brought her guitar straight upstairs to put into her closet safely.


“Tara? Is that you?” Kimberly’s voice called up the stairs.


“Yes!” Tara called back and turned around to come back down.


She smiled at her mother as she landed back downstairs, who looked at her strangely, not that Tara noticed.


“I’m going to get a drink, do you want anything?”


Kimberly shook her head as Tara moved past her.


“No. Thank you.”


Tara poured a glass of sweet tea from the jug in the fridge and downed it all in one go.


“Thirsty?” Kimberly asked with a raised eyebrow.


“Apparently,” Tara replied with an easy smile, refilling her glass.


“Sit with me for a bit?” Kimberly requested and Tara nodded amiably.


They went into the living room and sat on the sofa together. Tara hugged a cushion to her chest and just smiled.


“You seem brighter,” Kimberly commented, with a bittersweet look on her face.


“Just hung out with Willow,” Tara replied, shrugging one shoulder, “She…made me feel better.”


Kimberly nodded along, lips pursed together.


“Mmhhm. I’m glad you’re feeling better,” she said eventually, and lapsed into silence again for several long moments, “Were you really with Willow?”


Tara was startled by the question.


“Where else would I be?”


“Nate’s?” Kimberly asked, her tone probing, “Or…another boy?”


Tara’s brow only knitted tighter. Kimberly sighed.


“That crying last night was not ‘bad show’ crying. It was ‘bad boy’ crying. I’m quite familiar. And you’re very chipper all of a sudden.”


Tara’s jaw clenched and she sat forward.


“You honestly couldn’t be more wrong.”


Kimberly’s arms folded lightly over her chest.


“Did you trip and fall today?”


Tara held back looking at her mother like she was crazy.


“What? No.”


“Get into a fight with the suction end of a vacuum cleaner?” Kimberly wondered aloud, though her tone was a lot heavier on the sarcasm than she normally was and it unnerved Tara.


“What are you talking about?”


Kimberly reached out and pressed her fingers right under Tara’s pulse point. It was surprisingly tender.


“Well something bruised your neck pretty good and you’re telling me it wasn’t a boy.”


It took a moment, but then Tara’s eyes suddenly widened and her hand shot up to cover the apparent hickey on her neck. She turned her body so it was angled completely away from her mother to hide the blush she knew was rising on her cheeks.


Kimberly reached out and put a hand on Tara’s shoulder.


“Okay, you don’t want to tell me, fine. You’re an adult, you can do your own thing,” she said in a reasoned tone, “But are you being safe?”


Tara’s shoulders just tensed more.


“Mom, seriously—“


“it’s very important—” Kimberly pressed.


“It’s not an issue,” Tara interrupted, clutching the pillow tighter.


Kimberly sighed again.


“I’m sorry, Tara but it is an issue. If it’s about money—”


“Neither of us has slept with anyone else, okay?” Tara spoke in a rush, “There’s no issue here.”


Kimberly’s voice started to verge on annoyance; she knew Tara knew better, she’d raised her to be sensible about these things.


“And you’re not the least bit concerned about pregnancy?”


Tara’s mouth was trembling as she swallowed; her jaw tensing in the process.


“No, not really.”


Kimberly’s heart began to beat a little faster. She had to take in a breath before she was able to speak again.


“Why is that?” she prompted, suddenly terrified Tara was about to tell her history was repeating itself, “Well?


The last bit came out a bit stronger than she’d intended.


With her back still to her mother, Tara’s voice broke out through a sob caught in her throat.


“B-Because she’s a girl.”


Kimberly blinked.


That wasn’t what she expected.


Tara tried to stand and bolt, but Kimberly snapped to attention and caught her shoulder.


“Tara, wait. Please, sweetheart. I love you. Nothing could ever change that.”


Tara slowly sat back down, but with her gaze downward. Kimberly wrapped her arms around her and tucked Tara’s head under her chin.


“Oh, honey-bun. Did you think you had to hide that from me?”


Tara swiped at her eyes.


“I-I know you go to church. And read the bible.”


Kimberly kissed the middle of Tara’s messy parting.


“Sweetheart some of that book…well, some of it is just really dumb,” she said, matter-of-fact, “But now and again in spouts up some wisdom.”


She pulled back and held her daughter’s sad face in her hands.


“Like ‘Love is patient, love is kind’,” she said softly, “And I don’t believe restricted by something as superfluous as gender.”


Tara’s eyes filled with fresh tears and Kimberly allowed her to cry the relief into her chest. No matter how big or old or far away she got, Tara would always be her little girl.


She got her a tissue and refreshed her drink and after a little bit, Tara was composed, if not still silent. Kimberly had a hand on her back and was rubbing in circles like she would when Tara wouldn’t settle as a baby.


“I’ll tell you a secret. I always felt more of an affinity with Wicca. The spirituality and nature…that spoke to me. My mom had dabbled growing up, you see, so I knew a little. We were San Franciscan hippies. It’s even why I called you Tara, after the earth goddess,” she said in a fond tone, which faltered, “Your father…well, he didn’t approve. He wanted to call you Sally.”


“Sally?” Tara asked, brow furrowing. She didn’t feel like a Sally.


“After Mustang Sally, a horse that he won a lot on over the years,” Kimberly replied with a disapproving clipped tone, “But he wanted Donny to be named after himself so I won that one. In the end, he didn’t associate himself with the paperwork too much and you were Tara. But I wonder if I did you a disservice because he never liked the origins of your name and so I suppressed that part of me. And then after him, coming to a small town already a single mother…I never felt able to express myself in that way.”


She tugged Tara into another sideways hug.


“All I want for you is to always feel able to be yourself.”


Tara cautiously turned her gaze toward her mother, focusing on the first part.


“I kind of knew that. About you being interested in Wicca. You’ve mentioned your mom before. I’ve actually read up on it myself. There’s a Wiccan shop downtown. Well, a magic shop. But it has Wiccan stuff. You should check it out,” she suggested softly, “It’s called Uncle Bob's Magic Cabinet. The name could use some improvement, something snappy like…The Magic Box. Or something. But it seemed, um, authentic. It’s on Maple Court. Near the Espresso Pump.”


Kimberly nodded agreeably.


“Maybe I will. Thanks.”


They were both quiet for a few moments, pensive.


“Who is she?” Kimberly asked eventually, softly.


“You don’t know her,” Tara answered immediately, stilted.


“I’d like to,” Kimberly replied with a hopeful lilt.


Tara shook her head.


“She’s not…”


“Okay. That’s okay,” Kimberly reassured quickly. She lifted her hand and brushed some of Tara’s hair away, “Do you love her?”


Tara slowly turned her face until her eyes met her mother’s. She nodded repeatedly in quick succession and Kimberly started to stroke her head again.


“I’m happy for you. I hope she makes you very happy.”


A quiet sob left Tara again as she shook with the relief of sharing that secret. Kimberly just held her for as long as she needed.


Eventually, the tears dried and Tara felt like she could barely keep her eyes open. She stood up, looking down to hide how red she knew her eyes must have been.


“I’m going to head to bed. I didn’t sleep great last night.”


“Okay, honey,” Kimberly replied, standing too, “Just remember, I love you, always.”


Tara gave her mother a hug, mumbled a ‘thank you’ and left the living room to head upstairs.


Kimberly exhaled slowly as she sank back down onto the couch, taking everything in.


She took a deep breath and glanced over her shoulder to the Rosenberg residence, with a face full of concern.

Chapter Text


March


All This Feels Strange And Untrue
And I Won't Waste A Minute Without You



Willow walked into the Maclay kitchen but paused when she saw Kimberly sitting at the table.


“Oh, hey, Ms. Maclay,” she greeted politely, “Is it okay if I get a drink?”


“Of course, Willow, you’re at home here,” Kimberly replied with a welcoming smile, if a bit tired, “Are you ever just going to call me Kimberly?”


Willow returned the smile as she opened the fridge.


“Not a chance, Ms. Maclay.”


She poured a glass of apple juice, while Kimberly looked on covertly.


“Doing homework?”


“Uh huh,” Willow replied easily, “Study buddies.”


“I’m glad you’re both working to keep up your grades,” Kimberly said, taking a long sip from her cup of tea.


Willow’s hands fidgeted around the glass. Kimberly thought she knew why, so was surprised when Willow came to sit with her.


“Can I ask you something?”


Kimberly set her tea down and nodded. Willow considered her question for a few moments before she asked it.


“Don’t you think she should go to college?”


“Yes,” Kimberly answered unequivocally.


Willow’s brow creased.


“But you’re letting her go away.”


Kimberly just chuckled wryly.


“It’s not my choice.”


“But, you’re paying for it, or some of it anyway,” Willow protested, “And, and her music. Her talent. She could get into all kinds of schools, all kinds of programs, scholarships. Taking a year out could be…catastrophic for her entire future.”


Kimberly took in a slow breath and leaned toward Willow.


“Well, honey, if losing my parents at fifteen and getting pregnant at sixteen to an…unsuitable man has taught me anything, it’s that there is always more than one avenue in life and that no dream can’t be picked up again even if it has to be put on hold,” she said with a sadness pricking the corner of her eyes, “Especially if you’re not even sure what that dream is.”


She smiled.


“And my Tara is working out her dream. I thought music might be it, that’s why I sent her to her school. But even if it isn’t, her high school years have been filled with the freedom to express herself. You won’t remember, but she had a very bad stutter when we first moved here. There was a time I worried about how she’d ever communicate with the world. Then she picked up an instrument and I knew.”


Willow bit on her bottom lip as she listened.


“Doesn’t that make you feel like she’s wasting that? That opportunity you gave her?”


Kimberly shook her head.


“I didn’t give it with any expectation.”


Willow sat back in her chair, while Kimberly finished off her tea.


“Besides, the things she’s going to see and learn…there is a lot more to education than a textbook. It’s what she needs to know what she wants to come back to.”


“So the trip isn’t her dream, exactly…” Willow replied, slowly working it out, “It’s like…the catalyst. To know what she wants.”


Kimberly smiled over at the family photos sitting on a shelf above the table.


“If she’s only ever one thing, I want it to be happy,” she said, with some melancholy but mostly hope, “And I’m living proof that school does wait. Is it as easy? No, but it’s always there in some shape or form. I’d much rather her go away for a year to find herself and come back knowing what she wants, then to choose a path now just because it’s expected and end up 10 years down the line with a life she hates.”


Willow was silent, so Kimberly leaned in and patted her hand softly.


“The catastrophes we build up in our mind are never usually as disastrous as we think,” she said with a wink, “Sometimes they turn into the best thing you ever did.”


Willow blinked several times, then stood up and smiled appreciatively.


“Um, thanks for the talk, Ms. Maclay. I’m sorry if I was pushy.”


“You care about her,” Kimberly stated understandingly.


“Yeah, I l—” Willow caught herself, “She’s my best friend.”


Kimberly smiled and Willow downed the last of her apple juice, before placing the glass in the dishwasher and heading back up to Tara’s bedroom.


“How’s the calculus going?”


“It's functioning,” Tara joked and Willow had to quickly sit down beside her on the floor before her legs gave way due to that smirk.


“Hey, did you know it’s um, Pi Day?”


“Pie day?” Tara asked, using the eraser end of her pencil to scratch above her ear, “I didn’t know there was a day. I would’ve asked my mom to make some.”


Willow giggled.


“No, not pie, Pi. Like the number. 3.14159— you get the picture.”


“I didn’t know it got its own day,” Tara replied, smiling at Willow’s lightly flushing cheeks.


“Well, today’s date is 3/14…Geddit?” she said, slightly giddy, “It’s also Einstein’s birthday. He was born in 1879. What am I even saying? Hey, we should make up a pi song.”


It only took a second for Tara to catch up with Willow’s conversational jumps; it was a skill she’d learned early. But before she could answer, Willow’s face was scrunching up as she tried to imitate…something.


“Pi is fly, it ain't a lie,” she attempted to rap and immediately knew she should never, ever try to do that ever again, “Okay well, there's a reason you're the musician.”


“That was good, sweetie,” Tara encouraged kindly, “I find it easier to keep a melody sometimes.”


She stood up and took her guitar from its stand, put the strap over her shoulder and sat down crossed-legged again with it sitting in her lap.


She hummed first, then strummed a tune.


“Sweet or not,
Cool or hot
The best kind of Pi
Is the one you’re taught.”


Willow giggled.


“Do more,” she asked, eyes bright with the kind of awe only Tara could bring on.


Tara changed up the tune slightly and smiled adoringly at Willow.


“This isn't a complex equation,
You see
It's you plus me
Equals less than 3.”


Willow’s heart fluttered and she couldn’t stop staring as the melody altered once more. Tara seemed a little nervous, but it didn’t show in her voice when she decided to add lyrics.


“With you,
I feel my heart entwined
Love is patient,
Love is kind.”


Tara saw Willow working out what she’d just sang and shyly tucked a piece of hair behind her own ear.


“You don’t need to say it back. I just wanted you to know.”


Willow’s mouth opened, then closed. This happened several times before she took Tara’s hand and lifted it to her mouth to kiss her knuckles.


Tara let out a low laugh of relief; at least Willow wasn’t bolting out of there.


After a minute or two of silence, Willow spoke, still holding Tara’s hand clutched in her own.


“You weren’t lying when you said you’d written more than one song about me.”


Tara shook her head.


“Those were just ditties,” she said bashfully, “I do have another song I wrote for you…but I always wanted it to be just for you. I didn’t write it to share it so I’ve never sung it at a show or anything.”


Willow frowned.


“Why haven’t you played it for me?”


“I wasn’t sure if you were open to hearing it,” Tara answered honestly, “But I think you might be now?”


“Can I hear it?” Willow asked, offering a smile of encouragement.


She gave Tara her hand back, who held it motionless for a moment while she closed her eyes. They started an almost imperceptible tap before falling into their starting place on the guitar.


“I call it Crayola Heart.”


She opened her eyes again, with great effort as she wanted to close them and shield her vulnerability, but she wanted Willow to feel as much of her heart as she’d put into the song.


(All of it.)


I’ve stared for hours
Trying to ascertain
The subtle spectrum
That you ingrain


I know your stare but your eyes still strain me
Emerald, chartreuse, mint cream maybe?
I see your depths, but not in vain
Your soulful spark:
My heart’s terrain



Willow was captivated right off the bat. This was truly a serenade.


It’s not black or white
It’s rainbow baby
That swell of light
I know I’m in safety


I can clearly see from our own hue
That this pigment on my heart is nothing new
My true colors belong to you


Our chromaticity, intensity, luminosity
Shines
Take this injection of color
Don’t be afraid to be mine



Willow’s heart was beating fast now, as she processed the words a split second behind the emotions Tara’s voice evoked.


Head of fire
Heart of gold
Your copper tones
Bright and bold
-ly falling into those sad eyes
Jade, Kelly, Apple Green?
You’re my everything in-between



Willow swallowed softly as Tara swung back into the chorus


It’s not black or white
It’s rainbow baby
That swell of light
I know I’m in safety


I can clearly see from our own hue
That this pigment on my heart is nothing new
My true colors belong to you


Our chromaticity, intensity, luminosity
Shines
Take this injection of color
Don’t be afraid to be mine



Don’t be afraid, Willow thought, If only it was that easy


Sometimes I can see your undertone exposed
I see your white pain
The blue feelings you’ve imposed


I only wish I could make you see
Make your eyes open
To the shades of your beauty
Not the parts you see broken


You think that you’re flat
But I see what’s true
You fear a scarlet G on you.



Willow took in a sharp breath.


It wasn’t like she didn’t know Tara knew her; she did — better than anyone.


Always had.


But hearing herself being laid out flat like that from a conversation they never even had was a punch in the gut and a hug to her heart all at once. Tara knew her deep down depths and still wanted her.


It’s not black or white
Oh, It’s not black or white
It’s rainbow baby
That swell of light
It’s rainbow baby


I can clearly see from our own hue
That this pigment on my heart is nothing new
My true colors belong to you


Our chromaticity, intensity, luminosity
Shines
Take this injection of color
Don’t be afraid to be mine


It’s not black and white baby
We’re living in color



Tara played out a few endnotes and let her hand fall motionless again. Willow took in several long, slow breaths.


“You used chromaticity in a song,” she said eventually.


“You taught me that word,” Tara smiled softly.


Willow swallowed again and stared at Tara for a second.


“You’re amazing,” she said eventually, making Tara look down, “No, you are.”


Tara looked up from the floor with a crooked smile.


“I just have an amazing muse.”


Willow shuffled forward, closer. A hand on Tara’s knee, up her thigh, anywhere, she just needed to touch her.


She rubbed that spot for a second or two and wondered how to respond. There were so many things she wanted to say but couldn’t find the courage to. But maybe she could show Tara she didn’t want to be like this; she wanted to be an open book for Tara’s eyes only.


“Can I talk to you about something?”


Tara lifted the guitar away and leaned it against her bed.


“Anything.”


Willow scooted over so she was shoulder-to-shoulder with Tara.


“You know how I didn’t tell you about Harvey Mudd?” she proceeded cautiously, receiving a nod in return, “There was… kinda a reason.”


Tara turned her head but didn’t say anything. Willow wiped a sweaty palm on her jeans.


She barely knew how to voice what she was trying to say.


“It didn’t make me as happy as I thought it would,” she said finally, “I keep thinking I made the wrong decision.”


“The wrong school?” Tara asked softly.


“See, that’s the thing,” Willow replied, throwing her hands out in frustration, “I love the idea of that school, I do. It concentrates on all the things I love, it has a great reputation, a good student life. Everything I could want.”


Except you.


She paused and swallowed deeply.


“Um, but something just feels off. Like it’s the right path but I’m going in the wrong direction? Oh, I don’t know, I’m not even making sense.”


She sighed, banging her head back with a soft thud.


“I don't know what to do, I… I wanna know, but I don't.”


Tara put a finger under Willow’s chin and tilted it toward her. She brushed the back of her fingers against Willow’s cheek, both of them smiling when she leaned into it.


“Do you remember what I told you at New Year’s?” she asked softly, “Do what makes you happy.”


That moment could have made Willow believe in magic; she was sure she could feel it twinkling around them and fizzing over her skin.


Not for the first or last time, the moment was ruined by Donny.


He barged into Tara’s room, making Willow grab the nearest exercise book and pretend to be writing in it.


Donny didn’t notice; he barely glanced in their direction.


“Gimme the car keys.”


Tara folded her arms at her waist and looked down to avoid his gaze.


“I need them to get to work. I’m in until closing and it’s not safe to cycle that late—”


Donny’s old, mucky boot took a loud and threatening step toward Tara.


“I don’t care. Gimme. Now.”


“No,” Tara protested, trying to keep the tremble out of her voice.


Donny leaned down with his fist balled.


“I said gimme!”


“Hey!” Willow shouted, jumping up and in front of Tara, “Back off!”


Donny’s lip curled in disgust.


“What’s it to you?” he sneered, “Oh, I get it. You’re her little g—”


“Just stop,” Kimberly’s tired voice came from behind Donny’s looming frame, “This is ridiculous.”


She stepped into the room, in a robe, eyes flashing between anger and exhaustion. Just what she needed when trying to sleep off a night shift.


She surveyed the room, but couldn’t glean what exactly had happened. Same fight, different day.


She was, however, surprised to see the math books scattered about.


They were actually doing homework.


Maybe she’d been wrong about them.


“She won’t give me the car keys,” Donny grumbled.


“I need it,” Tara said to her mother, “I’m working the late shift.”


Willow was still shielding her, and the hands that were entwined behind her back.


Kimberly sighed.


“Donny, I promised Tara the car today, so she gets it.”


“Of fucking course she does,” Donny spat and stormed out, hitting Kimberly’s shoulder with his along the way.


She stumbled and Willow reached out to steady her.


“Ms. Maclay!”


Kimberly looked at the door, worried, then patted Willow’s hand.


“It’s okay, sweetheart.”


The front door slammed loudly and Tara stood, looking like she might burst into tears.


“I’m sorry, mom, I don’t try to start fights with him.”


Kimberly came over and gave Tara a hug.


“Just try to keep it down, okay?”


Tara nodded quickly.


“I’m leaving soon anyway. I won’t make any noise.”


Kimberly took Tara’s face in her hands and kissed her forehead. She left again and Willow gestured awkwardly at the door.


“I’ll get out of your hair,” she said, then waited for a beat before looking Tara in the eye, “Don’t let him bully you. You’re so much better than him. I don’t even know how you came out of the same gene pool.”


Tara shrugged one shoulder, gaze still downcast. Willow pulled her into a hug, which Tara closed immediately.


Willow lifted her hand to Tara’s shoulder and up to her neck, splaying out her fingers there. She turned her head and pressed her lips softly to Tara’s.


Tara pulled Willow’s hips in and returned the kiss.


Across the hall but with a view through the sliver of open door, Kimberly snuck out of the bathroom as quietly as she could.


That was certainly confirmation.


Without disturbing them, she crept into her own room for some much-needed sleep. Thank god that was her last night shift for a while.


Willow walked Tara down to the garage to make sure Donny hadn’t tried to flatten a tire or anything, but he seemed to have just stormed off. Willow made her check the brakes anyway. She had zero trust when it came to Tara’s brother.


When Tara had driven around the corner and off the street safely, Willow returned home. Her mom was ‘home’ but not actually home. Willow went into the kitchen to see about getting a snack and saw a note affixed to the refrigerator.


Gone to LA for the night, she read, Guess that means Oreos for one.


She grabbed the bag of cookies and headed up to her room to change into sweatpants and her (Tara’s, actually) Insect Reflection t-shirt; her favorite lounge clothes.


Once comfortable, she pulled her book bag onto her bed and lay on her stomach to finish off the homework she hadn’t completed at Tara’s.


As she was finishing up, she got a message from her father that he wanted to Skype. Willow took her iPad from the drawer in her nightstand and loaded up the app to call her dad.


She giggled when she got a close-up of a wrinkled forehead.


“Dad, you need to hold it further away.”


The camera shifted and finally settled on Ira’s face at an appropriate distance.


“There’s my girl.”


“Hi, Dad,” Willow replied, waving her fingers, “How’s it going?”


They chatted for a while about what they’d missed in each other’s lives over the past few days until Ira had to go and get ready for a business meeting.


“Dad, wait,” Willow said before he hung up, “Can I ask you one thing?”


Ira nodded amiably and Willow reached for the back of her neck, massaging the spot where her hairline ended and tension began.


“Well, um, I wondered…” she started, then focused her gaze on her father, “If I could only be one thing, what would you want it to be?”


Ira considered it and with a twinkle in his eye, answered Willow in a way he thought unexpected and supportive.


“Successful.”


Willow smiled a smile that didn’t reach her eyes.


“Thanks, Dad. See you soon.”


“Bye dear,” Ira signed off and the camera bounced from the screen.


She put it on the bed beside her and returned to the bag of Oreos.



Tara brought a set of dishes back into the kitchen and over to the industrial set of sinks.


Though waitressing posed some difficulties, she never envied that job. She always made sure her dishes were well scraped of anything lingering before she brought them over to the dishwasher.


“Thanks, Tara,” the dishwasher said with a smile. He appreciated that gesture.


“No problem, Paulie,” Tara replied with a returned, if slightly tired, smile.


When she turned her manager, Wes, was approaching her. Tara loved the girls she worked with; they all looked out for each other.


Her manager, not so much.


He kept his head above the water enough to never attract trouble, but he was incompetent at best, often on a power trip and Tara had caught him more than once perving on the servers.


“Hey. You can knock off if you want.”


“Really?” Tara asked, unsure.


Wes nodded.


“Yeah, those people you served just left and a crowd of young guys just took up two tables. They seem pretty hammered. There’s no need for all of you. I’ll send Madeline and Nikita out. I think that’s all we’re going to get tonight.”


Tara took the hint. He had his favorites, due to no fault of the girls’ own.


“Great,” she said evenly, “Thanks.”


She’d miss out on some tips but she was plenty ready to go home anyway. She slipped past and through the bar, letting Madeline and Nikita know they were the chosen ones tonight and headed right through to the break room. She could hear that loud group of guys hollering as she went through the door, but thankfully they were blocked out as soon as she closed it.


She changed out of her uniform and headed out to the car to go home.


Once there, after parking in the driveway, she glanced over to the Rosenberg’s house, but Willow’s bedroom light was off, so Tara opted not to disturb her.


She let herself in and heard the television, so poked her head into the living room to see her mother curled up on the couch.


“Hey.”


Kimberly looked up with a smile.


“You’re home early, sweetheart.”


“Knocked off early,” Tara explained, sitting down beside her mother, “Quiet night.”


Kimberly offered Tara some chocolate and put her arm around. She’d miss this when Tara was gone.


And honestly, she was a little scared of being left alone with Donny.


Think of the devil and he doth appear, at least a little while later when one of his friend’s cars pulled up outside the house. He stomped up the path and let himself into the house.


Tara thought she’d avoided him for the evening when she heard him stomp upstairs but moments later his feet came back down them and he stumbled into the living room with Jack on his breath.


“There you are, you little slut,” he slurred with contemptuous eyes toward Tara.


Tara looked taken aback. Kimberly’s eyes grew wide.


“Donny!”


Donny pulled a face at them.


“All ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ preachy innocent, meanwhile, you’re showing your tits and ass off to anyone in the tri-county area!”


Kimberly stood up, anger flaring in her eyes.


“Stop it right now.”


Tara’s head tilted down and she closed her eyes. Donny fed off her obvious uncomfortableness.


“She tell you where she works, hmm?” he asked his mother smugly, before scowling at Tara, “I saw you. Sneaking off in that washcloth you call a uniform. You didn’t even look around to see who was watching you.”


Tara lifted her gaze, her jaw tense. Kimberly looked between them, eyebrows raised a half-inch.


“What on earth are you talking about?”


“Honkerburger,” Donny said, spitting on the ‘b’, “She works at Honkerburger. That goddamn breastaurant over in Las Brujas. In two pieces of nothing showing herself off with no respect for anyone.”


He shot Tara a venomous look of hatred.


“You know what it’s like for your buddies to leer at your sister's tits while she lets it all hang out?”


“It’s not like that,” Tara said, almost whispering.


“You’re right, your ass is hanging out too,” Donny scoffed.


“Donald Edward, that is quite enough,” Kimberly snapped.


Donny’s nostrils flared in anger at being scolded.


“You think that’s bad? That’s not your only secret, is it?”


Tara’s eyes widened to saucers.


Donny put his fingers through his belt loops and rocked back and forth on his heels.


“She’s gay, she’s a frickin’ lessssssbian,” he said, smirking first at the horrified look on Tara’s face, then at his mother, “What do you think about your perfect child now?”


“Donny, enough—” Kimberly began but was cut off.


“I can prove it!” he said, reaching deep into his pocket and producing an old, crumpled piece of paper, “Look, they're about her stupid, dorky friend!”


Tara felt like she was about to throw up. It was bad enough he knew about her, but Willow? She’d freak out. She might never talk to her again.


She jumped up and tried to snatch the page, but Donny anticipated it and lifted it higher.


“It was just a stupid crush,” she tried to cover, but her voice was breaking.


“Yeah right,” Donny scoffed.


“Donny, I said that's enough!” Kimberly shouted, “None of this is any of your business. You are acting like a child right now.”


Donny’s eyes bugged, making a vein pop in his forehead.


“So she gets away with being a dyke too?! Oh now I’ve really heard it all.”


Tara’s face crumpled. He could, and would, make her life a living hell with this information. Her heart was thumping between her ears; she could barely make out her mother shouting at Donny.


“Apologize right this second.”


“I don’t believe this!” Donny screeched, “The perfect fucking princess can never do wrong! Never fucking ever!”


He made a lunge toward Tara.


“Fucking dyke slut. I swear by god I will beat you down.”


Tara flinched, but Kimberly caught Donny by the collar on his shirt before he made any contact. She was half his size, but well used to handling patients for her job. His off-balance center of gravity only helped her drag him out to the front door.


“Get out of this house right now!”


Kimberly watched Donny trip over himself to get down the lawn with anger pricking at her eyes.


Years, this had been going on; years she spent separating arguments until she’d eventually just given up. But that cruelty, the rage. It was a slap in the face of how bad things really were.


The sound of Tara hyperventilating brought her attention back and she realized she couldn’t see Donny anymore. She closed the door again and hurried in again, sitting with Tara and gathering her into a hug.


“Darling…”


“If he says anything…” Tara sobbed into her hands.


“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Kimberly soothed.


Tara shook her head desperately.


“Mom, you don’t understand.”


“I do,” Kimberly said in a resolute tone, only for Tara’s eyes to fill with fresh tears, “Hey, listen.”


Kimberly wiped the tears from Tara’s eyes.


“I do.”


Tara’s brow creased and all Kimberly could do was offer a consoling smile.


“I know about you and Willow,” she said, and heard Tara’s sharp intake of breath, “It’s okay, sweetie. I see how you look at her. And how she looks at you. And I understand this feels so very big right now, but I promise, it’s going to be okay.”


Tara looked at her mom like she was a little girl again, hoping she could make it all go away.


“She is not ready, Willow, she’s not, she won’t, oh god—”


She dropped her head into her mother’s lap and cried.


“It’s okay sweetie,” Kimberly comforted, stroking Tara’s hair, “Leave Donny to me.”


“Please, Momma,” Tara cried, muffled as her words came out in gasps of air, “I don’t care what he does to me, but Willow…”


The pain in Tara’s voice broke Kimberly’s heart. She closed her eyes and wondered if she would even be able to rein in her son. She didn't know how, but she'd have to.


“I promise you that I will sort this out.”



Tara awoke in the middle of the night to what sounded like a door banging in the wind.


It was repeated and annoying and enough to stir her out of bed. She checked her own door first, but it had been closed securely. And she couldn’t hear any wind.


She opened her door and quickly realized the source of the noise as Donny let himself in and made his way up the stairs.


If she thought he was drunk before, he was absolutely steaming now. One foot barely made it in front of the other, his eyes were sunken and every part of him reeked of stale beer, cigarettes, and dirt.


He stumbled up the last step and faked it into a curtsey.


“Ooh look, it’s the pwincess.”


Kimberly’s came out of her room. She’d left the door open so she’d hear Donny come in, and hadn’t been able to sleep anyway.


When her eyes adjusted to the light, she got a fright. She could have been looking at another man, one she hadn’t seen in many, many years. She had to bite her lip to contain a gasp.


“We’re not doing this again. Go to bed, Donny and we will be having a conversation in the morning.”


“Let me guess,” Donny replied, putting on a gruff angelic voice, “Tara is great and Tara is perfect and I wish she was an only child.”


“That is not true,” Kimberly replied in a heartbroken tone, “How could you think that?”


Tara wanted to take a step back from him; that stench was eye-watering, but she was frozen on the spot. Donny slurred in her direction.


“She gets the ffffffff-fancy equipment and the ffffffff-fancy school and the ffffffff-fancy trip around the world! What do I get? To be forgotten.”


Kerry pressed her fingers against her forehead.


“Donny I told you if you wanted to go to college I would find the money. You decided not to. I paid for all of your football stuff in high school, your Scouts even though you quit them both. You wanted a bike for your 18th birthday and you got it. It is time to grow up, Donald. I’ve let this petty sibling rivalry go on too long. You are a man, you better start acting like it! Why do you behave this way? Why do you antagonize your sister so god damn much?!”


Donny’s face contorted in rage and his fist flew to his mouth. His eyes bulged and terrified both women, but not as much as his booming voice did moments later.


”Because he hit me too!”


Kimberly’s brow creased for a moment, then flattened in slowly-dawning horror.


“W-what?”


Tara was tense between mother and son as they stared each other down.


“He hit me too and you did nothing,” Donny spat, gurgling on air before attempting and missing a swipe at Tara’s arm, “First time the little princess here gets a slap across the face and you had your bags packed in an hour.”


The world was spinning for Kimberly. She thought she might throw up.


“Donny, I didn’t…I didn’t know,” she said, her voice an echoing whisper as she closed her eyes and a single tear fell out, “I should have.”


She opened her eyes to give her son the remorseful gaze he deserved.


“Donny I’m sorry.”


Donny’s chest continued to heave in rage, while Tara shook beside him, more confused than ever.


“W-What is he talking about?”


Donny screamed, really screamed and he grabbed Tara’s shirt with both fists.


“Oh just shut the fuck up for once you stupid—”


With his balance off and his strength uncontrolled, one misstep sent Tara flying down the stairs. The thump of her body against the wood made the walls shake uncomfortably until there was a crack and then silence.


Eerie, strained silence.


Donny stared down the stairs in shock and looked on in slow-motion as Kimberly’s feet pounded each step down.


Kimberly, cheeks wet and eyes frantic, kneeled by an unconscious Tara at the foot of the stairs.


“Donny, what did you do?!”


Her voice was just an echo to Donny, who thought he might be next down the stairs if he didn’t move away, or throw up, or both. He watched his mother reach for the phone and instinct kicked in; he bolted. Kimberly didn’t even realize he was coming down the stairs until he was already passed her and out the door.


Her fingers shook as she dialed 911 to request an ambulance. Her nurse training kicked in, but so did her maternal instincts, so she held her daughter steady while choking back the tears.


Across the street, Willow woke still fully dressed, star-fished on her bed with her phone on one side of her and a half-eaten bag of Oreos on the other. She was unsure at first what had woken her up, apart from the uncomfortable position and questionable nutrition choices, but then noticed unusual red and blue lights flashing in her window.


Her eyes squinted to shield herself from them and she scooted off the end of the bed. She walked over to her window and had to rub her eyes with her fist to make them focus. Finally, she was able to make out what she was seeing; a parked ambulance on the street and Tara being brought across the lawn in a stretcher, Kimberly at her heels.


Willow’s heart jumped into her throat.


“Tara!”


Her palm hit the window with a thud, leaving its imprint behind as she sped out of her room to get outside.


As her socked feet hit the tarmac, the second paramedic was swinging the back door of the ambulance closed.


“What happened?!” she shouted, voice high and panicked, “What’s happening?!”


There was a seconds-long siren and the ambulance drove off, leaving Willow in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a crisis.


She stayed there until the lights flashed out of existence and she realized her feet were burning from running over stones and pressing into the rough ground almost barefoot. She looked down, her smiling Tinkerbelle socks a stark contrast to how she was feeling at that very moment. She glanced at the Maclay house, which was all locked up, and then back at hers, the door swinging open.


She hurried back inside and rushed around to find her shoes.


Finally, she found them peeking out from under her bed, where she’d kicked them off earlier. She shoved her feet into them and did her best to tie them on the move. She only just remembered to grab her keys before rushing out the door again. The bang could have woken the neighborhood, but the ringing only added to the one already in Willow’s ears.


She rushed around to the side of the house and grabbed the first bike there, not even noticing it was Tara’s. She pushed it off the wall and immediately felt the deflation of the wheels as she pressed the bike into the ground.


“Dammit, Donny,” she swore under her breath and let it fall again.


She rounded the corner to the back of the house where hers was locked up, but the Tire Bandit had been there too. Donny didn’t often go for her bike; he must have been really pissed. That scared Willow all the more.


She put her hands on her head and tried to breathe for a second and figure out what she was going to do. She could walk, but it would take a while and Sunnydale was creepy at night. She doubted there would be many cars hanging around waiting for a rideshare notification; this town was a desert past 10 pm. Probably because of the creepiness.


Her mom had taken her car, and Willow would have been in definite trouble if she took it anyway.


She suddenly remembered another bike, her father’s, though she hadn’t seen him on it since she was learning to ride one herself. Luckily it was tucked away in the garage and away from whatever sharp object Donny used to puncture the other tires.


Probably his nose.


“Heh,” she sniffled at her own little joke, quickly dabbing her sleeve against her eye.


She’s okay…she’s okay…‘okay’ people get taken off in stretchers all the time…


She jumped on the bike and forced the pedals through a few creaky rotations as it slid down the drive, finally getting into a rhythm as it rode onto the street.


The saddle was so uncomfortable that Willow spent most of the ride standing, which was not easy on this rusted hunk of metal, but her feet kept pushing and pushing, burning through the tears of worry that wanted to wet her cheek.


Finally, she got to the hospital, barely even parking the bike. In fact, the wall parked it for her when the breaks didn’t respond all too enthusiastically and she just about avoided a trip to an ER bed herself.


Stumbling off, slightly dazed for a moment, she pushed through from the dark night into the fluorescent lights of the emergency room.


There was beeping and muffled shouting, the occasional scream of pain. It smelled like a rotten soup of antiseptic and burning metal with a side of BO crackers.


Willow walked across the floor, sticky with god-knows-what, to the front desk.


“Was Tara Maclay brought in?” she asked, her voice hoarse from all the air she’d gulped in on the bike ride.


“Are you family?” the man behind the counter asked, glancing away from the computer for a moment.


Willow blinked several times.


“Um…”


He looked at her apologetically.


“Sorry, I can’t give out information unless it’s family.”


Willow’s eyes closed and she really had to stop herself from bursting into tears. She turned back and took a proper look at the waiting room, spotting an open seat near the door. The only seat left, for a reason — it was drafty and uncomfortable and hidden behind the main doors so that they slammed at you every few minutes, but Willow sank into it.


No phone to text Tara, no clue how serious the situation was.


She’d just have to wait.



Kimberly was sitting by the bed in the ER treatment room while Tara slept beside her.


They’d examined her and taken x-rays and given her painkillers and she’d fallen asleep again pretty quickly, having mostly just been groggy when she’d come around in the ambulance. Her arm hurt, she’d said.


You’re okay, love, Kimberly had soothed and Tara slipped back into slumber while Kimberly sunk into self-hatred.


Her head was in her hands and her stomach was in her throat.


One child was injured, the other was off the rails. Both of them were in pain and it was entirely her fault.


How could she not have known?


And how did she let it get…here?


She knew her son’s genes, if not his pain and it was so strikingly obvious her greatest fear was coming to life — her son was turning into his alcoholic, abusive father but it was not because of him. It was because of her.


It made sense, now, with hindsight. How he’d changed when they moved to Sunnydale; how he’d gone from doting brother to evil sibling. How her sweet boy’s eyes changed, hardened with anger and resentment.


She always thought it was from being uprooted and taken away from his father without knowing why. She’d even brought him to doctors and counselors but he would just sit in silence, then come home and pull his sister's pigtails, responding to no discipline or correction or any attempt at intervention.


They told her he probably missed his father, so she’d tried to get him into sports, scouts, anything with good male role models. Football was the only one he wasn’t asked to be removed from but he had removed himself once he discovered beer.


Kimberly had tried to go to one of his games, with Tara in tow, but he had freaked out and refused to participate so Kimberly never went again.


She should never have given up.


Why had she given up?


She knew why: time and money and every other life stress. She thought he missed his father and she could never give that back to him. It wasn’t an excuse, but it was the reason. Living under his cloud of resentment had become so normal, that she forgot it wasn’t.


And this was the climax; sitting with her daughter’s broken body while her son’s broken soul roamed somewhere unknown.


She stayed in that state; too broken to cry, to move even, until a doctor burst into the room. He barely looked at them as he rattled off his name and orthopedic standing before he put the x-ray film into the illuminator. Kimberly put her hand on Tara’s shoulder and gently woke her.


“Fracture of the ulna…radius looks intact.”


He attached a new film to confirm.


“You are a lucky young lady, we should be able to treat this non-operatively. You must have gotten a direct blow just as you landed… it was a stair fall, right? This looks like a classic nightstick injury where you lift your hand to block something attacking your face.”


“Yeah, I feel really lucky right now,” Tara remarked groggily.


“You are. 90% of the time I see falls like yours, both bones are broken and require surgical plates, or there’s associated dislocation or countless other complications,” the doctor replied gruffly, “Or if you hit it a little higher up the bone, months of therapy or permanent loss of functioning.”


Kimberly’s sunken eyes were brimming with concern.


“She’s a musician. Will there be any lasting damage?”


“You’ll regain 85-95% functioning in the wrist and elbow. Depends on what she plays and how often,” the doctor replied evenly, “I need to set that bone and then I’ll get someone to bring you down to the casting room. Nurse!”


He aggressively called a nurse passing by the door, who clenched his jaw but resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He was on her way in here anyway.


The doctor told the nurse what he needed to know, and the nurse nodded diligently. He was looking forward to his shift finishing up soon. The nurse came up to Tara and brought a blood pressure cuff to secure on her good arm.


“Hi, I’m Adam. The doctor needs to align the bones before they go into the cast. It’ll be over quickly and we’re giving you more pain meds,” he reassured kindly, “How are you feeling? Any dizziness, nausea, blurred vision or confusion or pain cropping up anywhere else?”


“No,” Tara answered, letting herself be poked and prodded without complaint so that it would just be over.


The doctor returned and pushed past Kimberly to crouch alongside Tara.


He touched her arm and she groaned. She heard her mother choke back a sob, so just closed her eyes and braced herself.


She went to her happy place; lounging on a beach with white sand and clear water. Sand so soft her feet couldn’t tell when it became water; water so still it didn’t even ripple when it enveloped her. Best of all, Willow holding her as they floated together in peaceful tranquility with no absent parents or murderous brothers or societal expectations to weigh them down.


Just the two of them, together, alone.


Wearing nothing at all.


She was able to stay in that place, half imagining, half dreaming as she laid in a drowsy state from the painkillers, all the way down to the casting room.


The technician was a woman in her mid-fifties who was light on her feet as she walked around the room and wore the wrinkles of someone who’d spent a lot of time laughing. She introduced herself as Charlene and explained to Tara what she was going to do as she gathered the equipment.


“What’s your favorite color?”


“Willow-green,” Tara answered, a dozy smile gracing her lips.


She still couldn’t work out the exact shade of Willow’s eyes, so she’d decided it deserved to be one all of its own.


“Well, I’m not sure about that color, but I do have regular old green,” Charlene replied with a cheery smile unbecoming of the early hour, “Some of the kids call it Kermit green.”


Tara’s head slowly tilted to one side.


“Does that make me the rainbow connection?”


Charlene sailed over on a wheeled stool.


“You’re funny,” she said with a deep chuckle, “Hold still for me now. We’re going to wrap this soft material around your arm and then bind the cast on top. It’ll just take a couple of minutes.”


Tara suddenly realized the doctor from before was back, locking her arm in place as the cast was applied. A pained groan passed her lips once or twice when it was done and he turned her arm to feel how it was sitting. They wheeled a portable x-ray over and checked the placement before finally Tara was turned back over to an orderly to return to her room.


She stared down at her green arm and felt a wave of anger that this had happened. She wasn’t even out of the woods yet; anything but full function might hinder her finger dexterity and make her lose ability on some of her instruments.


Anything that brought her joy, he took. She wouldn’t let him take Willow from her too.


She thanked her nice orderly as she got out of the wheelchair and Kimberly helped her back into the bed. Her happy place was not working and she was really starting to feel grouchy.


“This gown is so scratchy.”


Kimberly moved toward the end of the bed, where a plastic bag was hanging off.


“I have the pajamas they took off you,” she said, opening the bag and taking the pajamas out, “Let me help.”


She pulled the collar of the gown away from Tara, who twisted away.


“No, don’t!”


Kimberly backed away and Tara kept her back to her mother while she changed, with cursory glances over her shoulders. She was able to pull her pants up one-armed and gingerly put her arms through the top. The only struggle came when she tried to use her restricted fingers to close the buttons. She wished she’d just worn a t-shirt or tank but, ironically, she’d dressed in her proper pair for comfort after the rough day she’d had.


Kimberly hovered on the other side of the bed, trying to respect Tara’s privacy. She watched Tara’s shoulders rise and fall with her arms as each button and decided to come around.


“Honey, you need help with the buttons.”


Tara tried to grab both sides of her top to yank them across each other and shield herself, but she wasn’t proficient enough yet in cast dexterity.


“Stop! I said I’m fine!”


Kimberly lifted the loose fabric away from Tara and stared at the surprising markings etched onto her skin.


“When did you get a tattoo?” she asked evenly, after a moment.


Tara snatched the fabric back and worked out a way to pull the hole over the button one-handed instead of working the button through the hole.


“Last summer.”


“When you were 17?” Kimberly asked with a quiet gasp.


“Oh, I’m sorry, is an underage tattoo the worst thing a child of yours has ever done?” Tara replied sarcastically.


Apparently, she’d lost her filter too.


Kimberly looked stung and walked a few feet off to the side, her back to Tara with arms loosely folded over her chest, but the rest of her body rigid.


Tara fixed herself up and put her legs back up on the bed. She covered her lower half with the blanket and turned her head to the side, watching the hospital world go by outside the window.


After a minute, Kimberly turned back around, a permanent line of tension on her forehead.


“This is not an easy situation for anyone, Tara,” she said, unable to hide the choke in her voice, “I'm realizing that your brother is an alcoholic.”


“Yeah, no shit,” Tara replied and Kimberly was shocked because Tara had never sworn in front of her.


She sunk down into the chair beside the bed.


“Tara…I’ve supremely let him down.”


Tara's eyes flashed with pain that went much deeper than her broken bone.


“He’s spent my whole life torturing me.”


Kimberly smiled sadly, her eyes glassy with unshed tears.


“He didn’t. You were best buddies…once. He loved being a big brother. He brought you in for show and tell at pre-school when you were a baby.”


Tara just looked bewildered; that was not the Donny she had in any living memory.


Kimberly dropped her face into her hands.


“I wanted to save you, to save you both and I’ve just let all of this spiral out of control.”


Tara turned it over in her mind, but she was just more confused than ever.


“What are you talking about? And what was he talking about last night?”


Kimberly straightened up, her cheeks pale. After a few false starts and several calming breaths, she spoke.


“I always told you that your father left us. But that wasn’t true. I left him.”


She started to shake her head, her nostrils flaring as she struggled to control her breathing.


“He was…not a good man. I knew that he was cheating on me, and using family money to drink and gamble. He was older than me when we met and I was impressed by him, but years and kids made me see his true colors. Thankfully he never asked me to marry him as I probably would have said yes,” she rolled her eyes at herself, “He started to scream at me, in private at first, then in front of you two. He would tell me I was a monster, try to control me. Then he started hitting me. I was at my wit's end, and I looked into what I could do to get away. I was saving money, planning on bringing us all back to San Francisco.”


She wiped the corner of her eye quickly.


“Then one day, you were playing with your toys and he thought you were being too noisy. I heard him yell at you from the laundry so I came out to bring you outside and he was pulling you up by your shirt collar.”


Her chest rose more aggressively with each breath.


“Your little face was so terrified. As I was running over to you, he slapped you hard across the face and dropped you,” her voice caught as the memory played out in her mind, “Donny came over to comfort you and I kicked your father out of the house.”


Her eyes closed painfully.


“Just like I kicked Donny out.”


She swallowed and offered her attention back to Tara.


“My aunt who took me in after my parents died and continued to support me even after I ran off upstate and got pregnant…she lived in Santa Barbara. I gathered what money we had, our favorite things and anything I could fit in the car that could be sold and we left that night. We lived with her for a few weeks until I figured everything out. San Francisco was way out of our budget and the cheapest properties in the area were in Sunnydale. She helped with the deposit. She died a couple of years later and the inheritance allowed me to go back to school, with a few scrapes along the way.”


Tara remained stony-faced.


“Did he ever try to find us?”


Kimberly nodded.


“Once. He found my aunt. She wouldn’t tell him where we were. I’m sure he went home to that sister of his after that. The poor woman was beaten into submission by their father.”


She looked down.


“I always felt most sorry for her little girl, Beth. The cycle was just going to continue. That’s why I was so determined to get you out, to get you both out.”


Tara was silent for several long moments, parsing together that story and what Donny had said the night before. She thought about how Donny had treated her his whole life. It was, at least, an explanation, not that it made the physical or emotional abuse any more tolerable.


“I don't remember any of that. Why didn't you tell me?”


“Because I hoped you’d forget. And you did and I don't regret that. I’m glad you have no memories of that man,” Kimberly’s voice burst with emotion as she spoke, “But your brother does, even more than I realized. I-I should have known. But I didn’t. I failed him.”


Tara didn’t think her mother being around her was going to benefit either of them right now.


“You better go find him,” she said curtly, “Before he beats up someone that will press charges.”


Kimberly just nodded and gathered her things to leave.


“Mom,” Tara said when she was at the door and Kimberly looked over her shoulder, “I’m not living in the same place as him.”


Her stare remained hard as Kimberly tensed.


“And if he breathes a word about Willow I will press charges and never be in the same room as him for the rest of our lives.”


Kimberly swallowed, nodded once and continued out of the room.


Tara closed her eyes; she was reeling.


She’d always thought her father was a deadbeat, but never that it had gotten as bad as it did. She couldn’t help feel sorry for a little Donny dealing with all of that and retaining the memories. He had been a victim too. But it didn’t absolve him of making her his own victim.


With too much playing on her mind, she fell asleep until the same nice nurse from earlier came to check on her blood pressure.


“Holding steady,” he said, as he noted it on the chart, “Would you like me to send your friend up? It’s not strictly visiting hours, but she’s been sitting out there all night so I won’t say anything if you won’t.”


Tara’s brow creased in confusion.


“Young, red hair?” Adam offered as an explanation upon seeing the look.


Tara’s eyes widened considerably.


“Willow!?” she asked in a gasp, “Willow is here? Yes, please send her up!”


Tara waited somewhat impatiently until she saw Willow pass by the window directly opposite her bed. Willow looked through it, saw Tara was there and picked up speed. She looked disheveled, exhausted and so thoroughly relieved to see Tara’s face.


“Tara,” she croaked as she came through the door and rushed to her side, “Tara, are you okay? I saw the ambulance take you, I didn’t know what happened, are you okay?!”


She leaned in to hug Tara, but noticed the cast and pulled back again.


“Tara…”


“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Tara reassured, squeezing Willow’s hand as they fell into her good one, “You’ve been out there all night?”


She cocked her head and frowned.


“Are you wearing my shirt?”


Willow looked down in confusion for a moment.


“I-I like to sleep in it,” she answered in a preoccupied tone, “Tara, what happened?”


“It’s just a broken arm and a few bruises,” Tara played it down, “It was…”


She sighed.


“Donny got drunk, like really drunk. He grabbed me and threw me down the stairs.”


Willow’s eyes bugged out of her head.


“What?!”


“Sit down,” Tara said, and Willow complied, but didn’t let go of Tara’s hand.


That alone made Tara smile, but it faltered when she saw the concern etched across Willow’s face. Tears suddenly sprang to her eyes as she felt the vulnerability of the whole ordeal pierce through her.


The legs on Willow’s chair dragged closer to the bed and Tara felt her hand clutched tighter.


Slowly, she told Willow the story her mother had told her and how she’d ended up lying in that hospital bed.


“That’s…horrible,” Willow said, shaking her head to herself, “For all of you…but this…this is not okay. All these years, everything he’s done…it is not okay.”


She started to get choked up.


“He could have broken your neck or given you a brain injury or…”


Her eyes grew wide again.


“Your music!”


“I’ll be okay once it heals, the doctor said, probably,” Tara said, lifting her cast and gingerly wiggling her fingers as she wondered what instruments she might still be able to pick up and play.


Willow watched her do it with an ever-growing snarl on her face.


“I’d like to break every one of his fingers off and feed them to him,” she said, only lifting her chin higher when Tara raised an eyebrow in her direction, “Occasionally, I'm callous and strange.”


Tara’s lips quirked upward on one side.


“I like strange.”


Willow finally smiled and started to lean in when a woman wheeling the lunch cart pushed into the room. Willow immediately pushed right back and dropped Tara’s hand.


Tara quietly chose the salmon and tried not to show her hurt. The tray was slid in front of her and she started to tear the plastic utensils out of the pack. She’d missed breakfast; she was starving. She figured Willow must be too. She’d stayed out there all night, and that told Tara more than the dropped hand.


“Hey,” she said softly, rearranging the tray so the bowl of soup and bread roll was closest to Willow, “Have the soup.”


Willow shook her head.


“No way, I’m not eating your lunch.”


Tara held out the spoon for her.


“It’s minestrone, that’s your favorite soup.”


“After ice-cream,” they said together and both broke out in smiles.


Tara pushed the spoon insistently.


“Please.”


Willow offered a grateful look and scooted in close again so she was sitting in front of the tray. She helped Tara cut up her fish and vegetables and pulled back the foil lid on the orange juice.


Tara drank the juice and Willow drank the milk and they shared the slice of apple pie, though Willow did only take tiny forkfuls so Tara would get most of it.


By the time they were finished, Willow’s hand was in Tara’s again.


“Can I borrow your phone?” Tara asked, “I need to call work and tell them I won’t be in.”


“Yeah, sure—” Willow started to reply, then looked stricken as she felt her pockets, “Shit. I didn’t bring it. I got scared when I saw the ambulance, I wasn’t thinking straight.”


“Oh, that’s okay, don’t worry about it,” Tara replied quickly.


Willow suddenly jumped up, grateful for something to do to help.


“No, no I’ll get one!”


“Willow wait—” Tara began, confused, but Willow was like a bullet when she wanted to be.


Sure enough, just a few minutes later, Willow returned waving an old cell phone.


“Got one, see? They keep these burner-type phones at the nurse's station, too cheap for anyone to want to steal them. Some people still do though. I saw it in a documentary on Netflix, he tried to stick it up his butt,” she rushed out, not allowing Tara to speak before she continued, “I’m sure this hasn’t been up anyone’s butt. What’s the number?”


“Oh,” Tara replied, briefly scratching her ear, “Um…I don’t know off the top of my head actually.”


Willow shrugged one shoulder.


“That’s okay, what’s it called again? I’ll look it up. They have an internet station in the family room. It’s right around the corner, I’ll only be a minute.”


Tara started to pale.


“You know, it doesn’t matter.”


Willow’s brow creased in confusion.


“But don’t you need to let them know?”


“Well…yes,” Tara replied with a gulp, “It’s…it’s H-Honkerburger.”


“In Las Brujas right?” Willow asked, with little reaction, “Is there just the one?”


“Um, yes,” Tara replied, eyeing up Willow unsurely.


Willow noticed and her face scrunched up.


“Are you okay?”


Tara cautiously met Willow’s gaze.


“You’re not mad?”


“About what?” Willow asked, frowning.


“A-about where I work,” Tara replied with a slight nervous quickening of her words.


Willow thought for a moment but still couldn’t work it out.


“Why would I be mad about where you work?”


Tara suddenly felt like a heavyweight was pushing down on her shoulders.


“A lot of people, they…don't like that sort of place…or judge it…because of the uniforms and stuff.”


“A lot of people are assholes,” Willow replied curtly as she finally started to get it, “Have you been hiding this from me intentionally?”


Tara hated that inflection of hurt in Willow’s tone.


“I didn’t really tell anyone,” she said, “Nate knew, but—”


“You told Nate but not me?” Willow asked, really showing her hurt now.


“He picked me up from work when it was raining once. I would have missed a show if he didn’t, that’s all,” Tara explained, “I didn’t want to hide it but people have ideas, and they’re mostly wrong. Even I thought it would be worse than it is. The manager is a bit of a jerk, but the other girls aren’t and the customers are mostly really nice.”


Willow took a moment to take it all in.


“Do you get harassed?”


Tara shook her head.


“No more than I did at the country club. And they were worse tippers.”


“Typical,” Willow rolled her eyes, “Is the uniform uncomfortable? It’s not the kinda clothes you usually wear.”


“It’s just a uniform,” Tara replied, still a bit downcast, “One of the girls dresses like a goth in her downtime, another is a Mormon. I only have to wear it inside those walls.”


Willow’s hand slowly crept up to find Tara’s hand.


“I support whatever you do. You don’t have to hide things from me.”


She lifted Tara’s hand to kiss her knuckles, and Tara would have swooned if she wasn’t already lying down. She lifted her hand to touch Willow’s cheek.


“I-I have to tell you—”


“How are you holding up?” Adam the nurse returned for another vitals check, and Tara was worried hers would be all out of whack with Willow there. She regulated her breathing and made herself look away.


“Oh. It’ s okay. Just aches a bit.”


Willow made a motion that she was going to leave, which confused Tara but she was busy getting attended to.


Tara waited while her blood pressure and heart rate were taken, relieved that it was normal.


“I’ll see about getting you some more painkillers,” Adam said before going off again.


Tara sat, quite sad, but perked up when Willow returned unexpectedly, with a small piece of ripped paper with a phone number on.


“Oh, thank you,” Tara replied, understanding.


Willow shrugged, a silent ‘no big deal’.


“I’ll let you make your call.”


She looked so tired and Tara was once again overcome by the tenderness Willow had shown.


“Honey, go home, get some sleep. I’m so sorry you got a fright,” she encouraged, “My mom will bring my phone in. I’ll stay in touch. Honestly…I was going to try and get some sleep anyway.”


Willow was exhausted and she didn’t want to intrude on Tara’s sleep either.


“I’ll come to see you again this afternoon if they don’t let you out.”


“Thank you,” Tara answered, a smile filling her face when Willow kissed her forehead.


Willow walked back out of the building and to where she remembered leaving the bike, but it was gone. She was extremely confused as to why would anyone would want to steal that rustmobile. After a quick look around, she realized the trash had been collected and apparently it had been taken along with it. An assumption Willow really couldn’t argue against.


She just sighed and turned, ready for the long walk home.


In another part of town, Kimberly dragged her feet behind her as she walked. Between night shift adjustments and this ordeal, she hadn’t slept in more than 30 hours and that was before all of the stress she’d been under as she tried to figure out how she was going to fix her broken children.


No matter what, one was going to hurt more because of this.


She wandered around the supermarket, trying to pick out Tara’s favorite treats but was so unsure. She thought she knew; watermelon jolly ranchers, cherry Twizzlers, peanut butter M&Ms. But she hadn’t known her daughter was gay or had gotten a tattoo either, so what did she know?


She paid for everything and continued on to the hospital, stopping after she parked just to breathe for a second. This was not going to be easy.


She braced herself and made her way into the hospital and to Tara’s room. She tried her best to seem chirpier than she was, hoping the makeup hid her red-rimmed eyes.


“I got you some treats and magazines,” she said as she came in, hanging the shopping bag from the end of the bed and placing the overnight bag on the nightstand, “How are you feeling?”


Tara was curled up on her side, silently frowning.


“Pretty crap, really,” she said, sniffling, “My manager told me I can’t perform my duties with a cast, so I might as well not come back in.”


Kimberly was torn between indignation and relief, though she recognized the latter wasn’t very feminist of her. Still…


“I can’t say I’m not pleased you won’t be going back there,” she admitted, knowing how worried she’d be if she thought of Tara working there, particularly late at night.


“You don’t know anything about it,” Tara replied curtly, “There are good people there. And now I’m down everything I would have saved between now and when I leave for my trip.”


Kimberly’s head dropped. Her jaw clenched. Her feet pressed themselves into the floor and kept her in that spot when all she wanted to do was run from this situation. She hadn’t felt like this since the morning the two pink lines showed up. It was too much responsibility.


She finally raised her head and pulled herself into the seat next to Tara.


“I found your brother.”


She swallowed, finding it hard to keep moisture in her mouth.


“He hadn’t gotten into any more trouble,” she continued, nodding along, “And he’s sorry.”


“Sure,” Tara replied, throwing her eyes upward.


“He is,” Kimberly insisted, “He thought he’d killed you. He was very upset.”


“That he didn’t succeed?” Tara replied, almost a sneer.


Kimberly didn’t expect Tara to make this easy on her, but she was making it so much harder.


“He knows he’s out of control,” she said, voice wobbling, “I’ve gotten him to agree to rehab.”


Tara’s eyes closed for a moment, then opened again, but downcast.


“Well, that’s good. I’m glad…I’m glad he’s doing something.”


Kimberly reached for and took Tara’s hand, relieved to hear her say that.


“I’ve been in touch with a residential center I worked in doing my nurse training. They’re good, they have a great success rate. They said they’d give him a bed today. It’s a 90-day program, it would give us all some…breathing space.”


Tara’s eyes narrowed.


“Why do I feel like there’s a big ‘but’ coming?”


Kimberly’s whole body started to shake. She didn’t even know if she could get the words out.


“But I would have to use the money I set aside for your trip ticket to pay for it,” she said, a hand flying up to her mouth, then covering her eyes to stall the tears.


Tara’s bottom lip wobbled but she tensed stoically, refusing to give any reaction. She closed her eyes to stop her tears, but one slipped out anyway.


Kimberly squeezed Tara’s hands tighter.


“It was for you, so you can decide—”


Tara’s eyes snapped open as she snatched her hand back.


“Don’t put that on me like there’s even any choice.”


Kimberly felt a pang of guilt as her arm fell away from Tara.


“I'm so sorry Tara. I'll work to get the money together for your ticket as soon as—”


“Go,” Tara interrupted, her head and heart throbbing now alongside her arm, “I said leave!”


Kimberly obliged and left, wiping her eyes with her sleeve along the way.


Tara tucked her chin into her chest and pressed the nurse call button, hoping he’d hurry up with those painkillers.


She was too afraid to sleep, as it seemed every dream was snatched away.



Willow returned to the hospital by way of a car this time, for which her thighs and calves were most grateful.


She’d gotten just a few hours sleep, but a bed and a shower had been heaven after her night and she felt much more rested.


She walked around the block, making a couple of stops, then returned and went into the hospital and up to Tara’s room.


“Hi,” she greeted when she saw Tara just lying on her bed, absently staring into space.


“Hey,” Tara returned, eyes glassy and limbs floppy as she tried to sit up properly, “You look pretty.”


Willow blushed as she took the seat beside Tara.


“You couldn’t not look pretty,” Willow replied, casting a glance around to make sure no one was passing or looking before placing a kiss on Tara’s cheek, “I wouldn’t use a double negative for just anybody, you know.”


Tara reached out and gently ran a finger in a half-circle pattern on the collar of Willow’s shirt.


“You definitely have some double positives…”


Willow cleared her throat and gently guided Tara’s hand away.


“They gave you some more pain meds, huh?” she asked cheerily, “Good. Hate to think of you in pain.”


She kept Tara’s hand and ran her thumb over the knuckles.


“When I broke my wrist that time in 2nd grade, my parents wouldn’t let me get a colored cast. How lame is that? My mom said they were ‘gauche’. As if everything about me wasn’t already ‘gauche’. I think that’s when I started picking out brighter colored clothes,” Willow mused aloud, “I just laughed at her though, because white light is basically a hidden rainbow, so technically my cast was all the colors.”


“Now you’re the rainbow connection,” Tara giggled, throwing her hands up in delight, “You were mine and I was yours and one day you’ll let the light at the end of it shine on us.”


She poked Willow gently in the chest, then laid her palm flat and slowly frowned.


“It’s lonely where you are.”


Willow felt the hair stick up on the back of her neck and a brief wave of nausea pass through her stomach. She quickly stood and started rooting through the bag she’d brought in with her.


“Um, I brought you one of those falafel pittas you like so much. Did you get my text? I wasn’t sure so I got the tahini on the side.”


The delicious smell made Tara sit up straight.


“Sorry, Will, I’ve been distracted,” she said, reaching for her overnight bag, “I didn’t take anything out yet.”


She unzipped the front pouch and retrieved her phone. A few missed messages, from Willow and her mom, and a few from the girls at work telling her to get well soon.


Willow brought the table up to Tara and put the pitta on there with the cherry cola she’d bought with it.


“I didn’t want to just show up unannounced again but I saw your mother drive off with Donny and I didn’t want you to be alone,” she explained, helping Tara by unwrapping the sandwich, “I hope she was dropping him to a bus station to go somewhere far, far away. And even then, she should have made him walk.”


Tara nibbled on the corner of the falafel.


“He’s off to battle his demons with a baseball bat made out of my dreams.”


Willow paused; that amount of bitterness had never been something she’d known Tara to possess.


“What’s going on?”


Tara sighed deeply.


“Where to start?”


“I find usually the beginning is a good place,” Willow encouraged softly, “As slow as you need to.”


Tara told Willow what her mother had told her, growing more upset as she explained.


“I lost my job, I lost my trip,” she cried softly, “I’ll lose y—I’ve lost everything!”


Willow sat in the chair right at Tara’s side, an arm across her waist. She really couldn’t believe this and was so mad at Donny and Kimberly, but she recognized who she needed to be right then and it was being a support to Tara.


“Tara, no. What about all the money you’ve saved for the trip yourself?”


“I need that for the actual trip to y’know, live for a year, do the things I want to do, see the things I want to see. I’d already be doing it frugally. I guess I could cut out some stops, maybe? I don’t know, I’d have to work it out, price everything up again.”


“No, you’re not missing out,” Willow replied, shaking her head, “I promise you, we’ll find the money somewhere else. Your dream is not over. He won’t take this from you too.”


Tara shook her head, despondent.


“I’ll never raise that much, especially not in time. My mom has been saving for a long time, so have I and I’d been hoping to save between now and summer and—”


Willow made Tara meet her gaze.


“Do you trust me?”


Tara nodded without hesitation.


“Of course.”


Willow kept Tara’s gaze, intently.


“I promise you will go on that trip. Just as you’d planned. Doing everything you want to do.”


Tara finally nodded and Willow held her quietly and reassuringly until there was a knock at the door.


“Can we come in?”


Tara’s eyebrows rose in surprise as she saw a group of the girls she regularly worked with huddled by the door.


“Hi! Um, yeah, sure,” Tara replied, sitting herself up properly, “Um, Willow these are all the girls I work with. This is my, um, this is Willow.”


Willow waved a little awkwardly and pushed back on the chair to stand.


“I’ll let you talk.”


She passed by the girls as they came in and huddled around Tara. She sat in the corridor to wait, twiddling her thumbs and trying not to think about how attractive they all were, or how much of them Tara regularly saw.


In the room, all of the girls were espousing how lousy Wes the manager was to Tara for cutting her like that.


“We wanted to give you this,” one of them said, handing an envelope over to Tara, “We know how hard you save for your adventure, so we pooled our tips. Even Paulie put in.”


Tara looked in the envelope and felt a lump form in her throat.


“You don’t have to do this.”


“We want to,” Nascha said with a firm but affectionate smile, “You’ve covered shifts for every single one of us. We’ll let you rest but we just wanted you to know we’ll miss you on the floor.”


“And we’re complaining to head office too,” Madeline added.


Each other came around to give Tara a hug individually, which almost left her in tears. As they left, Nascha hung back so it was just the two of them.


“Tara?” she said softly, pulling up the chair. “This conversation is just between us for the moment.”


Tara seemed confused, but Nascha’s brilliant white smile was on display.


“The area manager is getting rid of Wes. She’s training me to take over.”


Tara’s eyes widened and a grin lit up her face too.


“That’s amazing, congratulations.”


“I know you’ll be graduating and then traveling, but when that thing is off if you want to pick up a few shifts just let me know,” Nascha continued with a wink, “In the meantime I’ll make sure you get everything you’re owed and that you stay on the books, yeah?”


Tara rubbed the heel of her palm against her eye. She didn’t want to look weak in front of her prospective future boss.


“Thank you.”


Nascha just gave her a hug and followed the rest of the group out, while Tara cried silently into her hands. Willow came back in and rushed over when she saw.


“Hey, did they upset you?”


Tara shook her head.


“No, they pooled their tips for me, and I might be able to get some work again when the cast comes off.”


Willow stroked Tara’s hair and smiled reassuringly.


“See? We’ve got a head start already.”

Chapter Text


The First Day Of Kindergarten


You Were A Child, Crawling On Your Knees Toward Him


Willow stared ahead at the large building looming in front of her and clutched the straps on her bigger-than-herself backpack.


Ira took a knee beside her and gave her a gentle, encouraging push forward.


“Look at all the other kids running inside, they can’t wait to go in and have fun.”


Willow looked down at the grass and scuffed her newly-shined shoe.


“I wanna be with Tara.”


Ira took her hand and brought her along into the school.


“She’s in another class, honey. You’re in Ms. Finnergans’s class. Look, there’s Cordy Chase. You know her, you were in tennis club together.”


Willow looked over at the familiar girl and noticed she was showing off the latest Barbie to a gaggle of other girls in the class. Willow had her Barbie in her backpack and wondered if they could play together.


“Okay, Daddy.”


Ira smiled proudly.


“Oh, you’ll be just fine, honey. You’re my big girl now. You’re going to learn all kinds of things. I’ll collect you after school and you can tell me all about it okay?”


Willow bent her arm to bring up her Doogie Howser wristwatch, tied securely on.


“When the little hand is on the one and the big hand is on the twelve?”


Ira nodded reassuringly.


“That’s exactly right. Let’s say hello to your teacher.”


Willow came along agreeably, met her teacher and was shown her cubby. Ira hung back to let her get used to him being gone, watching his little girl grow up before his eyes.


“I'd give all I have, honey, if you could stay like that,” he sighed before leaving her with a lump in his throat.


Willow was led to a circular table where some other children were coloring and given a sheet to join in. Willow was immediately content and started in on a drawing for Tara, of them playing make-believe as witches, their current favorite game.


As she was coloring in the broom head a nice, bright yellow, she pushed the crayon into the page a little too hard and it snapped in half. She stared down at her own hand in shock, then clasped her fist closed as tears sprung to her eyes.


Beside her, a boy with floppy brown hair haphazardly rubbed a red crayon over the page, making an edge-to-edge picture of a Ferrari. He stopped when he noticed Willow’s unusual stance and looked at her, scratching the side of her head.


“What’s wrong?”


Willow’s eyes flew to him, panicked.


“Nothing!”


The boy just kept looking at her and his soft gaze comforted Willow. She slowly opened her fist and revealed what was inside.


“I broke the crayon!” she whispered, nearly sobbing, “I’m gonna get in trouble!”


The boy blinked several times, then took the crayon, threw it back into the basket with the rest and shook it so it mixed back in. Willow stood shocked at the act of utter rebellion and threw her arms around the boy.


The boy just smiled goofily.


“I’m Xander.”


“I’m Willow,” Willow replied, sitting back down to finish her drawing, “This is me and Tara. We’re best friends.”


Xander started in on the wheels.


“I wanna be best friends with Spock.”


Willow giggled at the funny name.


“Who’s Spock?”


After a while, Mrs. Finnergan came around and bent down between them both.


“What a lovely picture, Willow. And you, Xander. Can we hang them on the wall?”


Both children nodded and helped affix their creations to the wall above their cubbies.


Willow decided to fish her Barbie out of her backpack and approached Cordelia and the girls sitting around her. She held her doll tightly in her hands and nervously approached.


“Can my Barbie play too?”


Cordelia, already adept at an eye-roll, slowly brought her gaze to Willow’s.


“This is only for Barbies with boyfriends.”


“And you haveta have a boyfriend to join the group,” a younger girl with platinum hair and a slightly absent stare added on.


Willow frowned, working out the mechanics of that word. A boy that was a friend?


“Boyfriend?”


“A boy that you want to hold hands with and stuff,” another of the girls almost fearfully explained.


Willow’s eyes lit up excitedly.


“Oh! I have a boyfriend that’s a girl! Her name is Tara and we watch lil’ mermaid and do yabba dabba!”


Cordelia’s mouth dropped with shock.


“You can’t have a boyfriend that’s a girl!”


Willow frowned again.


“Why not?”


“‘Cause you marry your boyfriend when you growed up! You can’t marry a girl!” Cordelia exclaimed and began cackling, “Willow wants to marry a girl! Willow wants to marry a girl!”


“No, I don’t!!” Willow interjected quickly, feeling rising panic at the jaunting and all of the eyes starting to close in on her, “I wanna marry a boy!”


Cordelia jumped down from her perch on the cubby shelf and narrowed her eyes at Willow.


“Which one?”


Willow’s eyes darted around the room until they landed on the familiar kind face that had gotten her out of her last predicament. Her finger jabbed in his direction.


“Him!”


Cordelia followed the point and snorted some more.


“Stinky Xander Harris?”


Xander looked up and Willow felt a need to defend him.


“No, he’s nice! He doesn’t smell bad!”


“Whatever,” Cordelia retorted and led her cronies away to another area of the room.


Willow’s heart was pounding through her tiny body and her grip was so tight on her Barbie, it almost snapped in half too. Not wanting to stand in the middle of the room alone, she approached Xander again, who was playing with his own doll.


“Hi,” she said shyly.


Xander looked up and across to Cordelia, then back at Willow.


“She sucks,” he said indignantly, “I’m only stinky sometimes.”


“We should make a club,” Willow said, eyes wide with excitement to have a shared passion, “A ‘We Hate Cordelia’ club!”


Xander looked at her curiously.


“Can I be president?”


Willow frowned. She wanted to be president.


“You can be treasurer,” she suggested.


Xander smiled affably. He had no idea what that meant.


“Okay.”


Willow’s eyes cast from side to side conspiringly.


“Will you be my boyfriend?”


“Okay,” Xander agreed again easily.


Willow held her Barbie up to him.


“Does your G.I. Joe wanna marry my Barbie?”


Xander shrugged.


“She has to help him fight Doctor Mindbender!”


“Okay!” Willow agreed loudly, her little eyes darting to make sure Cordelia and the first incarnation of The Cordettes saw, despite just becoming President of her first club.


Xander tried to snatch Willow’s Barbie and she ran after him.


“Hey! Give her back!”


As she followed Xander into the corner to play, she spotted her picture hanging on the wall. It made her feel happy and was confused why she felt happy when Cordelia had said it was so wrong. She didn’t like it one bit and the emotional turmoil was far beyond what her growing mind was capable of working out.


She just knew something was wrong, something was off and that from now on, Tara had to be a secret. Her secret.


When the big hand finally crept up on the twelve, Willow waited in her classroom for her dad to come in and collect her. She just nodded that she’d had a good time and took his hand. When she heard Tara call her name across the lawn, she pulled him faster.


Tara figured Willow mustn’t have heard her. She shrugged and ran to her mother to tell her about the day and how much she’d loved the xylophone she’d gotten to play on. She could just tell Willow later at home.


Willow looked through the car window at her best friend in the whole world jump into her mother’s arms and for the first time in her life, she experienced guilt.

Chapter Text


April


The Tears That Drip From My Bewildered Eyes Taste Of Bittersweet Romance


Willow hummed as she secured the seal on a padded envelope and added it to the growing pile.


Tara, sitting opposite on the floor of Willow’s bedroom and stuffing the envelopes before she pushed them over to Willow, recognized the bars of ‘Heigh Ho’. She watched Willow’s hands move in the same sequence for each package and it made her smile.


“Quirky,” she said as she caught Willow’s gaze.


Willow looked at Tara peculiarly as her fingers deftly pressed the sticky seal down and her wrist flicked it so it sailed over her shoulder and landed in the waiting box behind her.


“Huh?”


“If you were one of the seven dwarves,” Tara clarified through a laugh, “You’d be Quirky. I guess that would make you the eighth.”


Willow’s eyes narrowed playfully.


“You’ve tried that one before, Maclay. I know you mean ‘insane’.”


Tara smiled for a moment, then crawled over to Willow on her hands and knees. She pressed a gentle kiss under Willow’s right ear.


“Insanely smart,” she whispered, bringing her mouth around to kiss under Willow’s other ear, “And talented.”


She faced Willow and kissed her lips; soft, sweet and lingering.


“And beautiful.”


Willow flushed right down into her chest and reached out to cup Tara’s cheek. Her fingers splayed out against Tara’s skin and ever-so-softly held her chin to keep her there so Willow could keep kissing her.


Tara parted with a kiss to the corner of Willow’s mouth and returned to her spot. Willow blindly reached for the next packet, while waiting for her belly to stop doing flips.


“You’re the talented one. Your designs are gorgeous.”


Tara hadn’t believed any of her crafty things would ever be sellable but had finally agreed to try if it brought her closer to raising the funds for her trip ticket.


Willow had used her computer skills to facilitate.


“I can’t believe how many orders we got,” she said as she put the most popular sale, a repurposed guitar string made into a bangle with different gemstones, into an envelope, “I’ve been making these things for years…mostly just to occupy my hands. I can't believe you were actually able to sell all my old junk.”


“Most people have fidget spinners, you make art,” Willow replied affectionately, “And it's not junk Tara, it's couture design. They're one of a kind pieces. I can't believe you had this much and I didn't know about it! I thought you showed me all the stuff you made.”


Tara shrugged one shoulder.


“Only if I wear it myself, usually. The rest are just experiments.”


“Well you're very good at experimenting,” Willow replied, then realized what she said and blushed, “Um, did your mom get mad that you blew off school to make extra stuff? I would have blown off class too to help you if you’d told me.”


“Sweetie, you wouldn't blow off a class if your head was on fire,” Tara replied, shooting a crooked smile across the room, but it faltered, “She’s not picking fights right now.”


Willow noted the quiet tone. Tara had talked with her and cried with her in the first few days after the ‘incident’ but everything had quieted down as routine invariably snuck back into their lives.


“Are you still mad at her?” she prompted gently.


Tara shrugged one shoulder, not looking up.


“It’s messed up for everyone.”


Willow nodded, eyes trying to catch the emotion on Tara’s face.


“How’s…?”


“I don’t ask,” Tara replied, just barely hiding a sigh, “My mom goes to see him at weekends. He hasn’t abandoned the program, at least.”


She pushed another envelope across the floor.


“I can’t thank you enough for helping me out with everything. All of this printing and packing, setting up the website stuff… I couldn’t have done it without you.”


“Well, I’ve only been telling you forever that you should have an online store! It was your genius idea to market it as a pop-up,” Willow replied cheerily, “An online pop-up shop, it’s kinda so crazy that it works. It was super cool to actually start trending too, even if it was just for an hour.”


She picked up her phone and opened the spreadsheet where she was keeping a tally of the money.


“We’ve raised almost half of what you need. If we sell out the stock of what you’ve made we’ll only be a few hundred bucks away from what we set out to make.”


Tara shook her head, awed.


“That’s crazy,” she said, and grew quiet for a moment, “It’s great, phenomenal even but…it’s not enough to get there. I was thinking about pawning my instruments. Even if I go back to work when I get the cast off, I’m looking at scaling the trip back or sitting out another few months to save up again.”


Willow looked up sharply.


“You have to go this year!” she replied loudly, then stumbled over her words as she rushed to continue, “A-and you can’t sell your instruments! There’s no way! They mean so much to you, Tara. Promise you won’t?”


“Okay,” Tara agreed, a small line of confusion furrowed on her brow, “I just think it might come down to a choice…and I can always buy another sax.”


Willow pursed her lips, then tried to speak nonchalantly.


“You know I do have some m—”


“And again, you are so generous to offer,” Tara interrupted in a stern but sincere voice, “But I can’t. I just can’t. Nothing is worth things getting weird between us.”


Willow’s lips grew into a smile.


“Yeah, wouldn’t want to do anything to mess up our friendship.”


Tara offered a small grin.


“I’ve been babysitting and I’ll be picking up shifts again soon. That will help. Nate mentioned some shows he’s going to book for us. Basically, I don’t have a single minute to myself…but everything helps.”


“While Donny gets to swan around in a luxurious treatment center,” Willow sneered.


“Your prom is next weekend, right?” Tara cut her off, very much intentionally changing the subject.


“Is it?” Willow asked with a shrug, though she did know it was happening from all the posters around school.


She and Buffy had already agreed to sit it out and have a slumber party.


“Yeah, I think so,” Tara replied, an undeniable note of eagerness in her voice, “Are you going?”


“Nope,” Willow scoffed, “Buff and I are doing a girls’ night instead. Seems less…high school hierarchy.”


“Oh, okay,” Tara nodded to herself, “Well, um, thanks again for all of this…really, I’d have zero chance of still getting to go on the trip if it wasn’t for you.”


Willow scooted closer and kissed Tara’s cheek.


“You don’t need to thank me. I’d do anything for you.”


Their foreheads rested together and each pair of lips sought the other for a quick peck. Willow nuzzled against Tara for a moment, before grudgingly dragging herself away, but with determination on her face.


“Next box!”



“Pass the pizza.”


Willow lifted the pizza box to slide across Buffy’s bedroom floor to her, but it was decidedly light.


“We ate it all.”


Buffy frowned deeply.


“That makes me sad.”


Willow lifted the lid to confirm and frowned too.


“Sorry Buff. There’s still cookie dough.”


She held up the tube with a conciliatory smile. Buffy took it and scooped some up in her fingers.


“Cookie dough never lets me down.”


Willow frowned at Buffy’s demeanor and tried to think of a way to distract her.


“Do you want to work on your French?”


Buffy shook her head.


“There is nothing I want to do less right now than French homework,” she sighed as she picked up her phone.


After a minute of her thumb moving about the screen, her bottom lip protruded in a pout.


“I keep seeing pretty dresses and I keep wanting me to be in one too.”


She showed Willow the photo log of all of their classmates arriving at prom. Willow brow scrunched.


“You’re the one who said we should sit prom out…that you didn’t want to be surrounded by lame couples making lame poses, listening to lame music and—”


“Yeah, I get it, lame,” Buffy cut her off before arching a sculpted eyebrow at Willow, “Except maybe… it’s kinda not? We could…swing by…check it out?”


“I don’t think it’s a swing-by kinda thing,” Willow reasoned evenly, “What with the endless planning people put in.”


“We’ll sneak in,” Buffy replied, grinning now.


“Buffy,” Willow replied, lowering her voice lest anyone else inside the closed room heard them, “It’s school property.”


Buffy started bouncing on the spot.


“It’s better than sitting in on a Saturday night, right? And the music won’t be lame. I heard they’re getting a good band.”


“So, what?” Willow asked, biting the corner of her lip, “You want to gatecrash our own prom?”


Buffy nodded eagerly.


“In pretty clothes.”


Willow looked down at her multicolored sweater and faded jeans.


“I am not prom appropriate.”


Buffy’s eyes grew wide with excitement and she jumped up.


“Well lucky for you…”


She hurried over to her closet to throw the doors open.


“I have ‘appropriate’ for every occasion there is!”



Willow stood behind Buffy as she tried to hoist herself up to sneak in the bathroom window at the school.


It was not made easier by the fact that they were in dresses, bare-legged and getting scratched by the wall.


“Is this really worth it Buff?” Willow asked unsurely.


She’d actually enjoyed dressing up with Buffy but this seemed nuts. That window was barely big enough and she had no idea how she was supposed to do it when Buffy, the strong one, couldn’t even get up.


“Maybe we could try and sneak past the entrance? Ooh, we could try to distract them and steal the ink stamper.”


Buffy hopped down off the wall, sighing.


“Okay, honestly?” she asked, opening her purse and producing two tickets, “I have tickets. I bought them before I split with he-who-must-not-be-named. I didn’t think I wanted to go without a date, but I don’t see why a guy should make or break my only prom.”


Willow looked at her friend, exasperated.


“If you have tickets, why are we trying to climb in through the bathroom?!”


Buffy reached across herself to hold her arm meekly.


“I miss the excitement. I miss being wild.”


“Well wild on me equals spaz, so can we please go in the normal way?” Willow half-joked, half-huffed.


“Well we’d be breaking the habit of a lifetime, but I guess if ‘normal’ is so important to you,” Buffy replied, nudging Willow’s shoulder.


Willow offered a slight smile but averted her gaze.


Willow started to feel a bit nervous as they walked into the school and headed toward the gymnasium. There were definitely some people she’d gone to great lengths to avoid this past school year and she felt a bit like she was walking into the lion’s den.


They got their hands stamped and walked through the door, where the normal gym that haunted Willow’s dreams had been transformed. Everything was a stark red and black, accented with masquerade masks and tall feathers on the walls and some candelabras with candles away from anywhere there could be dancing.


“What…is this theme?” Buffy questioned, looking around, “Cheap Vegas showgirl?”


Willow noticed one of the homemade posters still adorning one of the walls.


“Illusions,” she read.


Buffy picked up the hem of her dress and moved toward the masses.


“Well, I’m going to illude myself over there!”


“That’s not a word,” Willow replied, though quickly followed her, “Wait, I’m coming!”


They coasted through the room until they found a spot to huddle and chat in. They spent a while commenting on the other clothes and giggling at the bad dancing to the generic playlist blasting out of the speakers.


After a bit, Buffy excused herself to go to the bathroom and after a quick glance around the room, Willow declined to join her, figuring it was probably where her nemeses were hanging out.


She made her way over to the punch bowl. As she ladled her second scoop of the fluorescent drink into her red solo cup, she heard a voice, or more so a laugh, that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up.


She furtively glanced over her shoulder and confirmed that Cordelia was approaching her at speed. Willow immediately folded in on herself.


“Wow, I can’t believe someone actually asked you to prom,” Cordelia cackled, staring at Willow intently.


When Willow just looked down, Cordelia snickered.


“Oh my god, they didn’t, did they? You came alone! What, not even—”


“I d-didn’t come alo—” Willow started to reply, but was caught off by what felt like a cacophony of laughter around her.


Cordelia sure knew how to make her singular presence feel like a gang even without her cronies hanging on. Where were they anyway?


“Willow doesn’t have a date,” Cordelia shrieked, almost doubling over with laughter, “Willow doesn’t have a date!”


Willow felt some droplets of punch fall onto her wrist as her hand began to shake.


That taunting hit her somewhere deep.


She tried to eye an opening she could push through, but an unexpected rescue came to her in the form of a voice she hadn’t heard in a long time.


“Leave her alone.”


Cordelia stared Xander down for a moment and looked hurt before averting her gaze.


“I should have known you’d still defend her,” Cordelia sneered, though her own voice was close to breaking as she tried to stumble an insult out, “I hear Hallmark is making the movie about you two. I hope you weren’t cheated out of the rights.”


Willow felt a rush of embarrassment and guilt. As horrible as Cordelia had ever been to her, she’d done her wrong as well.


“I really am sorry about—”


Cordelia held her hand up, just shy of saying ‘talk to it’, as she was aware that it was no longer the 90s.


“The stench of dork is just too much. I’m getting out of here before it clogs up my pores.”


She turned on her heels and left but didn’t go to anyone and just stood around by herself, checking her watch and looking like she was waiting for someone.


Willow stared down at her cup, very purposefully avoiding Xander’s gaze, though she could tell he was still there by the presence of his old but newly-shined shoes.


After a moment or two, that joking voice she’d come to value so much as a friend spoke up again.


“I hear the punch is extra-punchy this year.”


He held up his own cup as a demonstration or a toast, he didn’t even know himself which it was.


Willow finally looked up and felt a rush of emotion at seeing her longtime friend.


“Xander,” was all she could say, swallowing a lump and offering a small smile, “Hey, you scrub up well.”


He fidgeted with his bowtie but smiled back.


“Long time no speak.”


Willow sighed deeply.


“Long…long time.”


Xander bounced back and forth on his toes.


“I texted ya, but you didn’t reply.”


He continued to smile, no animosity in his tone or attitude.


“Honestly, I blocked your number,” Willow admitted shamefully.


“Was I sending too many fart jokes?” Xander joked and Willow couldn’t help but laugh, but then shook her head.


“I thought you’d be really mad at me. And I didn’t think I could handle you mad at me on top of…everything else.”


“How come you thought I’d be mad?” Xander asked as if it was an amusing thought.


Willow’s eyebrow arched.


“Um…breaking up your relationship? A-and the events leading up to it.”


Xander waved a hand.


“Pfft, pretty, popular…who wants a girl like that anyway?” he asked, but followed it up with a single shoulder sheepish shrug, “She never really liked me anyway. She was probably going to dump me as soon as school started back up before her friends found out. I thought we’d made peace earlier this week when I helped pay off her prom dress but I guess she’s still mad.”


Willow frowned; why would Cordelia need help paying off a dress?


“I think it’s me she still hates,” she supplied uneasily, “Hard to change a habit of a lifetime.”


“She’s been going through some stuff with her family,” Xander said with a sad bob of his head, “Lost her friends anyway.”


Willow swallowed. Did she actually feel sorry for Cordelia?


“Irony’s kind of ironic that way.”


There was a small silence and Willow’s heart started to speed up. She had not anticipated that reuniting with Xander might go so easily.


“Are you mad now? That I haven't spoken to you for months?”


“Not that I was missed,” Xander said, smiling sadly, “Felt like you and Buffy went off and just forgot about me.”


“No, no,” Willow replied quickly, “Buffy and I…there was a whole mess…we all just…poomf!”


She made her hands blow up indicatively.


“And then…I was so embarrassed about what I did. I was…temporarily insane.”


“I figured,” Xander bobbed his head along easily, “I mean no one of sound mind would take on the wrath of Cordelia willingly. I kinda thought it was a weird prank. Then I thought it was just an elaborate ruse to keep me out of the gang. Or maybe flunk out.”


He grinned boyishly.


“Turns out I need a Will in my life or I just become a lumbering oaf of stupidity.”


Willow quickly shook her head.


“No, I’m the bastion of stupid in this situation,” she replied, her cheeks flushing hotly. “You were collateral damage of my own confusion. I used you to work out some feelings and I'm really sorry. And I’m so, so sorry that I just ran away and blocked you out of my life and made you feel…god, that’s awful Xan. I’m so sorry. I was so concerned about myself I never stopped to think about how it affected you.”


“Did you?” Xander asked, dropping his chin to look at her, “Work out the feelings?”


Willow blushed some more.


“Kinda.”


Xander’s hands knocked together awkwardly.


“I think maybe I would have kissed you back,” he said, looking up to meet Willow’s eye, “Given the chance.”


Willow swallowed deeply.


“I don't think that would have been good for anyone.”


Xander held up his hands, mimicking a scales.


“That mistake or losing my virginity to a malevolent force dressed in leather,” he said, lifting each side up and down, “Either way I'm coming out on bottom.”


“Hey, you’ve been reading that word of the day calendar I got you,” Willow chuckled nervously then swallowed again, “I-I didn't know.”


Xander shrugged.


“Buffy knocked her into next week.”


Willow looked up, wide-eyed.


“Wait, it was HER?” she exclaimed, mouth dropping, “The cleavage-y slut bomb?”


Xander frowned a bit.


“Where ya been Wills?”


Willow frowned too.


“In my own little world, I guess,” she said in a tone that may have been sad but was fighting against it. She looked back up to Xander’s eyes, “But I definitely worked out that you're one of my best friends and not…”


Xander held a hand up.


“Say no more. The Xan Man has gotten the 'just friends' speech often enough to fill in the rest.”


“Can we be?” Willow asked hopefully, “Friends again?”


Xander bumped Willow’s shoulder playfully.


“Will you help me bump my chemistry grade? I'm trailing a fail here and risking not graduating.”


Willow wasn’t sure if that was a joke or not, but her answer was the same either way.


“You bet.”


Xander opened his arm in offering and Willow immediately closed it, her drink sloshing as she did so.


“Whoops!” she giggled, feeling utter relief that this wasn’t hanging over her head any longer.


Xander smiled at his friend-again.


“Oh, and I missed ya, Wills.”


Buffy suddenly came screeching up to them on the heels of the hug and threw her arm around each of their shoulders.


“Are we all back to being the three amigos again?”


“Well, Jesse was just here too…” Xander started, then shook his head when they spotted him across the floor trying to chat up Cordelia, “If he still wants to go there after all the stories I told him…It's his funeral.”


They all laughed and for the first time in a long time, Willow felt like everything was normal again.


“Hey, Xander needs help with schoolwork too…so maybe we can start studying together.”


“We can be study buddies,” Buffy suggested.


Willow cleared her throat.


“Um, or, a study group,” she said more definitively, “Let’s go with study group.”


They all refilled their cups and fell back into conversation and observation as if there’d been no conflict in their friendship at all. Willow was on cloud nine, feeling as elated as she ever had been.


The music stopped through the speakers and there was a brief moment of dissatisfaction in the crowd until a melodic male voice spoke into the microphone.


“Good evening everyone. Are you having a good night?”


There was a cheer from everyone except Willow, who frowned. She knew that voice.


“We are Insect Reflection and together we represent our insignificance in terms of the karmic cycle. The universe is really big and we're really small - we hope our music reminds you why we matter at all. Let’s do it! Sunnydale High class of 2018!”


He started strumming a guitar and if Willow didn’t know before that Tara was there, she knew as soon as Tara opened her mouth to sing. She stood on her tiptoes to try and see over the crowd and could just about make out Tara’s face and the harmonica she was holding in her hand, which was still mostly covered in green fiberglass.


“Hey, isn’t that your… friend’s band?” Buffy asked with a pointed look at Willow, “I didn’t know it was this band.”


“I-I didn’t either,” Willow replied with a gulp.


Tara was serenading the crowd but it only took a few seconds for her to find Willow.


In any room, their eyes would always find each other. Willow watched Tara’s expression change, but her voice didn’t falter.


“Did they say they were going to play Karma Chameleon?” Xander asked cluelessly, “I like that song.”


Just then, a girl with mousy brown hair approached Xander.


“You want to dance?”


“Uh…” Xander hesitated, “Why?”


Anya shrugged.


“You're not quite as obnoxious as most of the alpha males around here. Plus I know you don't have a date,” she said, then appeared to get angry when Xander didn’t reply right away, “Fine. Look, I know you find me attractive. I've seen you looking at my breasts.”


Xander smiled.


“Nothing personal, but when a guy does that, it just means his eyes are open.”


Anya rolled her eyes.


“Whatever. Look, do you wanna dance with me or not?”


Xander was silent for a moment, looked at Buffy and Willow, then followed Anya’s…body out onto the dance floor.


A few minutes later, after Jesse struck out with Cordelia, Buffy took pity on him and offered to dance. Willow pushed her way toward the top of the stage and waved demurely at Tara.


Tara looked right at her, but it was piercing in a way Willow had never felt from her before, and not in a good way.


“Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't have fallen in love with?”


Willow felt a knot in her belly. She’d never known Tara to look at her and not see love and adoration returned. She pushed back out into the crowd, got some more punch and went to join in with the others dancing.


The band finished up for the king and queen to be announced, but Willow didn’t hang around to see who it was. She left the school and walked around to the back where Tara had come out to take a break.


“Tara!” Willow called when she saw her walking away.


Tara stopped and Willow jogged up to her, as best she could in a dress.


“Tara,” Willow said again when she got to her, “I didn’t know you were playing tonight…why didn’t you tell me?”


“Thought you weren’t coming,” Tara replied curtly.


“I wasn’t,” Willow answered honestly, “It was a last minute thing.”


“With Buffy. And Xander,” Tara replied in a clipped tone, “Thought you weren’t talking.”


Tara’s tone made Willow want to throw up. Tara had never been angry with, ever, not like this. Even when Willow had called her that horrible name, she’d just looked sad.


“W-We weren’t.”


“Seems like you’re doing a lot of things you weren’t before,” Tara replied, hurt dripping with every word, “Without me.”


Willow shook her head repeatedly.


“It’s not like that Tara, I swear,” she protested, swallowing repeatedly as her mouth went dry, “Y-you were here anyway.”


“You didn’t know that,” Tara replied in disgust, “You didn’t even know if I was busy. You never asked.”


Tara’s eyes shut with tears and she turned her head away.


“I wouldn’t have asked you to declare in the middle of the dance floor. When have I ever pushed you to do anything you weren’t ready for? It would have meant something to me to ask me and no one else would have had a clue.”


Willow stood, silent and helpless and watched as Tara’s pain played so animatedly across her face.


“It never even crossed your mind that this might be something that you might ask me along to.”


Willow’s voice choked up.


“You know I can’t.”


“I know you won’t,” Tara returned harshly, shaking her head, “I only did this show so I could afford tickets to my prom. I was going to ask you but I think you’ve been pretty clear that that’s not something you want to share with me.”


Willow’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly.


“I…”


“What?” Tara prompted, and waited.


Willow’s jaw set to stop from trembling.


“I’m sorry,” she said eventually.


Tara closed her eyes for a second, then reopened them and nodded.


“Me too,” she replied sadly, “I’m glad you’re talking to your friends again.”


She turned and walked back toward Nate's truck.


“Tara—” Willow called, but Tara was gone and someone else was calling Willow’s name.


“Willow!” Buffy called, coming toward her with Jesse, Xander, and the new strangely literal girl following behind, “There you are. We’re all going to go get shakes, are you coming?”


Willow had to take a moment to gather her thoughts.


“No, um…”


“Are you okay?” Buffy asked, stepping toward her in concern.


Willow nodded.


“I just have a headache.”


“Probably from all of the vodka,” Anya offered, “You were consuming a lot of the punch.”


“It had vodka in it?” Willow asked, feeling it roll around her stomach even more.


“Oh yes,” Anya nodded, “Lots.”


Willow clutched her head.


“I’m going to head home. Do you mind if we call off the sleepover?”


“Yeah, that’s fine, we’re thinking of making a night of it,” Buffy replied, smiling at the newly put-together gang, “Are you sure you don’t want to come?”


Willow nodded again. She wanted to go home. And cry.


“I’ll wash the dress.”


“Don’t worry about it,” Buffy reassured, “Just call if you want to join in. Come on, we’ll drop you on the way.”


Willow smiled gratefully and gave her a hug. She made sure to unblock Xander’s number in the car and tried not to show how she was really feeling inside. Thankfully it was a short journey and she didn’t have to fake it for long.


She stood on the path outside her home and looked across the street. Tara’s light was off but that made sense.


She went straight up to her bedroom and threw herself on her bed. Her dress caught as she was going over and she jumped back up again to tear it off. She dropped it to her feet with its confusing complexity of memories seeping into it on the floor. She’d gotten Xander back, but had she lost Tara?


A sob released itself from her throat at the thought and she curled up in sweatpants and her (Tara’s) IR t-shirt, for the small comfort it gave.


She didn’t know if it was the alcohol or bile at the back of her throat, but it burned with each new cry into her hands.


Why was she like this? Why was she trying so hard to hurt them both?


After a good cry, she suddenly bolted upright.


Maybe she could make this better.


She ran over to her closet. She frantically searched through it and fished out two separate hangers. Checking them front and back, she ran back downstairs and across the street to the Maclay house.


It was late, but the living room lights were on and so was the one in Tara’s bedroom, so she knocked. Kimberly answered the door and didn’t even ask, just opened the door to allow Willow inside.


Willow hopped up the stairs and knocked on Tara’s closed bedroom door.


“I don’t want any tea!” Tara called through an obviously strained voice.


Willow knocked again and the door swung open aggressively a moment later.


“I said I’m fine—!”


Tara swallowed as she saw Willow standing there, both of them noticing the other’s red-rimmed eyes.


Willow thrust each hanger, one an earth tone with greens and browns and the other a neutral black, toward Tara.


“Which one?”


Tara just looked bewildered and Willow swallowed deeply.


“Which one should I wear?” Willow repeated, looking right into Tara’s eyes, “Which one matches your prom dress better?”


Slowly, realization dawned on Tara’s face.


She smiled and shakily pointed to the green.


“That one.”



“Thanks for doing this, Buff.”


Buffy hummed as she looked through Willow’s limited makeup collection.


“Well, I had to make sure you looked your best. This is like a real prom with a real date,” she said, arching her eyebrow playfully, “Isn’t it?”


Willow, sitting on her bed, ran a hand over the patterned dress she had yet to put on.


“Kinda.”


Buffy came over and sat next to her.


“Are you rethinking…?”


Willow shook her head.


“Not about how I feel,” she said with a sigh, “It just gets stronger.”


She paused.


“I just…”


She shrugged.


She couldn’t say for sure if she would have extended this offer to Tara if she hadn’t been drunk on vodka and misery that night.


“It’s hard sometimes. And I know I’m the one making it harder. I hurt her and…I never ever want that.”


Buffy patted Willow’s shoulder.


“I know I don’t ‘get it’ exactly…but I know what it’s like to keep a relationship secret. I’m always here if you need to talk.”


Willow felt herself welling up.


“That means so much. I was so scared for anyone to know and…”


Buffy turned and pulled Willow into a hug.


“Willow is Willow, no matter who you love.”


Willow’s cheeks flushed lightly and Buffy tapped her back with a smile.


“Well, let’s get you ready for this thing,” she said as she swayed over to Willow’s docking station, “We need some tunes.”


She went through the playlists to find a good one to get ready to.


“What’s ‘T Time’?” she questioned, her eyebrows rising when some R&B began playing, “The T is for…trigonometry? Oh. Tara.”


Willow rushed over with bright red cheeks and quickly flicked a different playlist on.


“So should I wear my hair up or down?” she asked with a speedy need to change the subject.


Buffy was just as happy to move on and sat Willow in front of her mirror to experiment with some different styles. They finally decided to keep it down and Buffy would straighten it. Willow changed into her dress and Buffy applied light make-up but didn’t overdo it.


Buffy presented Willow in the mirror, smiling behind her.


“I wouldn’t go for the long sleeves myself, but you know, it looks great on you.”


“Thanks,” Willow replied with a bashful smile.


Willow looked at the clock hanging on her wall through the mirror.


“Hey, could you hang around for a couple of minutes?”


“Sure!” Buffy agreed.


They went downstairs and Willow was very grateful her parents had gone on another trip so they could be home for her graduation. She didn’t want to have to explain this.


After a few minutes, the doorbell rang and Willow stood up nervously.


She opened the door and her breath was instantly taken away.


Tara was in a dress of very similar style to Willow’s, but black with a floral design. They weren’t traditional prom dresses, but neither of them had ever been traditional dressers. Tara’s hair was down too but as shiny as it had ever been and softly bouncing below her shoulders.


Willow found herself falling in love with everything from the small crinkles at Tara’s eyes to the way her sleeves flew out at the wrists and how the creamy white skin of her calves contrasted against the dress where the hemline fell.


She swallowed several times as her eyes gave Tara the more-than-once-over and finally noticed an absence of something.


“Look at you, no cast.”


Tara twisted her freed arm around shyly.


“All healed.”


Willow finally stepped aside to allow Tara in.


“You look gorgeous.”


“So do you,” Tara complimented shyly as she walked inside.


Willow closed the door behind them and Tara handed her something. Willow wasn’t sure what it was at first, but as she took it she realized it was a leather purse with a thick but not-to-heavy chain strap.


“I knew you wouldn’t want me to get you a corsage,” Tara explained quickly before Willow could look at her strangely, “So I made you this.”


Willow started to smile, but it turned to stun when Tara continued.


“I-I used the swing. I’ve been working on it a while.”


“Wait…our swing?” Willow said, eyes wide as she turned the purse over in her hands and took it in for all its glory, “The one we broke the night we…?”


Tara nodded shyly and Willow stared at her, in awe.


“You…you made this from that?” she asked, tears almost springing to her eyes at the thought and time and consideration that must have gone into it, “This is amazing. Thank you so much.”


She threw her arms around Tara’s neck and kissed her, hard.


After a moment, Buffy cleared her throat and made Willow pull away.


She blushed, but she couldn’t stop smiling. She went over to show Buffy the purse.


“Look what she made me. From an old swing!”


Buffy’s eyebrows lifted, impressed.


“You made this? Wow. You’re talented.”


“So talented,” Willow gushed, then shyly took Tara’s hand, “I wanted you to meet Buffy. Properly.”


Tara’s eyes softened and she smiled in recognition of what Willow was doing.


“Tara, this is Buffy. Buffy… this is Tara.”


They shook hands and Willow glanced between them nervously.


“She got me ready tonight.”


“You did a great job,” Tara said to Buffy, though her eyes were all for Willow.


Willow was staring right back with what only could be described as heart eyes.


Buffy watched the exchange for a minute or so before deciding she was very much superfluous to requirements.


“So I’ll see you guys around!” she said, walking away awkwardly toward the door, “Enjoy your prom!”


“Bye,” Willow and Tara both echoed, but not without taking their eyes off each other.


Tara brushed her hand along Willow’s arm.


“You really did tell Buffy about us.”


Willow swallowed and nodded. Tara smiled and linked their fingers so their palms squeezed together.


“I’m so proud of you.”


Their moment was interrupted by a beeping sound from outside. Tara smiled and tugged Willow’s hand.


“Our ride is here.”


Willow quickly transferred everything to her new purse and proudly wore it on her shoulder. She followed Tara outside but stopped short when she saw a black limo waiting for them.


“Tara, this is way too much money! You’re saving every penny.”


“We’re collecting others on the way,” Tara replied easily, “Everyone chipped in, so it wasn’t expensive. I know this is big for you…I wanted it to be special.”


Willow was touched and smiled as the driver opened the back door for them. The seats were plush inside and lit up by luminous under lighting that changed colors.


“Cool,” Willow giggled as she slid across the seat, “Ooh, they have fancy sodas!”


She picked out a green one for herself and a red one for Tara and felt über suave as she cracked the tops off the counter.

The long necks of their bottles clinked as the limo set in motion. Music played and Tara put her arm around Willow’s shoulder.


Willow snuggled in. It took her an entire minute to realize how comfortably she’d gotten into that position. How unselfconsciously it felt to fit into Tara’s side.


She thought of all of the moments she lost, that they lost because she was afraid of…what, even?


“Tara?” she turned as the romantic music swelled.


The touch of your hand says you’ll catch me if ever I fall.



Tara’s hand covered hers and Willow opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again and leaned up for a kiss.


You say it best when you say nothing at all.



She cupped Tara’s cheek while she kissed her, then tucked her head under Tara’s chin.


They had the limo to themselves for the entire journey into the next town, where the school and the rest of the prom attendees were being picked up. Tara stepped out to open the door at the first house and Willow heard a loud cheer as everyone greeted each other. She grew a bit nervous again as everyone piled in, particularly as she and Tara got separated.


Tara mouthed ‘sorry’ and smiled apologetically across the car before introducing her around, just as ‘Willow’.


The only person she vaguely knew was Nate, but she waved and said hello to the group. They were as you might expect a group of performing arts students to look, heavy on the alternative aesthetic and expressive in their demeanor. Willow was kind of surprised that this was Tara’s circle; she certainly was much shyer on home ground. Then again, she still seemed to be the quietest of the group.


Not unexpectedly, when a catchy tune came on, everyone started breaking out in harmonies.


Willow smiled; they were a fun bunch and Tara certainly fit in with her voice. Hers was the most beautiful, of course, and there wasn’t a human being on earth living or dead that could compete with her as far as Willow was concerned.


Much to Willow’s gratitude, no one pressured her to join in and she was happy to bop along in her seat and share ‘secret’ smiles with Tara.


When they got to the school, everyone piled out and Tara hung back for Willow, the last one out of the car. Tara didn’t try to take her hand and shrugged her shoulders when the others headed for the photo booth outside the auditorium.


“We don’t have to do the pose thing.”


Willow opened her mouth. She wanted so desperately to be able to throw caution to the wind, but no words came out, just silent cowardice. Tara smiled understandingly and gestured her forward.


“Come on. I’ll show you around.”


Willow gulped and tried not to hang her head as they bypassed the line for photos and headed straight inside.


“I never asked what the theme was.”


As they walked in, it became abundantly clear. The decoration standard was so much higher than it had been at SHS. Fairy lights hung from the ceiling and the walls were decorated with quotes from famous lovers written in different mixed media styles. Black and silver balloons were formed into arches and strewn loosely about and glow in the dark stars were dotted at different places along the walls.


“Written In The Stars,” Tara answered.


“Wow,” Willow breathed, “It’s so…pretty. Hey look, it’s like those lights you have up in your room.”


Tara smiled shyly.


“I may have offered an idea or two.”


Willow could only smile back.


“Of course you did. Only you could be responsible for something this beautiful.”


She linked her arm with Tara, who beamed at the contact.


Tara brought Willow out to the dark corridors and showed her around the school. Willow was surprised by how similar it was to SHS at first, a normal high school, but as they continued through the building, the specialized art and music rooms were revealed.


“So this room is completely soundproofed?” Willow asked, turning in a full circle.


“Yes,” Tara smiled, enjoying her childlike expression.


Willow looked straight up at the ceiling and suddenly let out a loud scream.


Tara jumped and covered her ears with her hands as her heart thumped steadily out of her chest.


“Oh my god, Willow. A little warning next time!”


“Sorry,” Willow replied sheepishly, “Could definitely do with a room like this when my parents are around.”


Tara placed a finger on the collar of Willow’s dress and she let it drop, following the neckline down to her chest.


“You can scream at my house…”


Willow blushed considerably; Tara’s tone was so innocent she would have almost thought it to be a genuine offer and not a double-entendre, were it not for that inquisitive finger brushing against the exposed bones in her collarbone. That finger told her everything she needed to do and it was not lost on Willow that it was generally that finger involved in getting to know her.


Tara took her hand back and smiled demurely.


She brought Willow back to the auditorium, through the back doors, outside and around the building and in again, so the cool air would calm Willow’s cheeks.


“I hear they cut the pizza into star shapes on the snack table,” Tara said with a grin as they entered the party again, knowing that would get Willow’s attention.


Willow, sure enough, quickly looked at her, then over to the large table in the corner.


“Any chance the punch is spiked?”


Tara shook her head.


“No, nobody here would get someone drunk without their consent.”


“No, you have to be a Sunnydale High asshole to do that,” Willow muttered under her breath, “Is it okay if I go snack? I kinda forgot dinner.”


Tara nodded for her to go ahead, so Willow went and grabbed a biodegradable, of course, paper plate to sample the snacks on offer. She was impressed by that too. Even the punch had starfruit floating in it.


After a moment, she felt something brush up against her back, then Tara’s familiar warm voice whispered in her ear.


“I asked them to play a song just for us.”


Willow shivered as the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She turned around to respond but Tara was already backing away from her, grinning and throwing her a wink.


Willow was confused for a moment until she tuned into the song playing.


We don't have to take our clothes off
To have a good time
Oh no



Willow felt a fresh blush rise, but deeper this time, much deeper. Tara was teasing her way more than ever tonight, and while part of her felt paranoid that she was pushing the boundaries in public, she also felt excited to get the attention and for once, the latter was outweighing the former.


Tara spun around as she saw the penny drop with Willow, grinning as she disappeared into the crowd of dancers. Whilst still lost in the thrill of her little joke, she bumped into a short girl with black ringlet curls, who was standing over the stage, unpacking a microphone.


“Oh, I’m sorry.”


The girl turned around and a smile lit up her face.


“Tara.”


Tara’s face made the exact opposite expression.


“Emmy.”


“Hi,” Emmy greeted, throwing an arm around Tara in a warm hug.


“Hi,” Tara returned, quickly swallowing to get some moisture in her mouth, “Um, what are you doing here?”


“I was invited,” Emmy replied with a grin, then lifted the box beside her indicatively, “I’m with the band. We’re playing later. I didn’t know this was your school. We never really got a chance to talk about it at camp.”


Tara paled and felt the elation she’d been feeling begin to shrivel.


“I’m really sorry about…the last time I saw you. I’m still so embarrassed.”


“Don’t worry about it,” Emmy waved a hand easily, “How’s the tattoo holding up?”


Tara looked down at her chest as if her dress might become transparent and revealed her inked skin.


“Oh, it’s fine?” she said, more than slightly distracted, “I like it. It maybe wasn’t the wisest decision, but it worked out.”


She cleared her throat and looked remorseful.


“I haven’t touched alcohol since,” she admitted, then added on quietly, “Or cornered any unsuspecting girls.”


Emmy laughed, which startled Tara.


“You definitely didn’t corner me,” Emmy replied, lifting and dropping her eyebrows once, quickly, “And if you think I said no because I didn’t like you, you were wrong. I said no because you were so clearly hung up on someone else and not thinking clearly. It wouldn’t have been right.”


Emmy looked far away for a moment as if recalling a fond memory.


“I was worried I was going to have to talk you out of a tattoo with her name on it. It was a relief when you said you just wanted a musical score,” she laughed again and Tara’s face momentarily flashed with guilt, “Of course if I hadn’t been drinking myself I wouldn’t have let you get it at all, but hey…it’s a story.”


Tara tensed; wondering if the ‘story’ had been shared amongst a lot of people.


“Well, um, good luck with your set.”


“You playing tonight?” Emmy asked as she unstrung the microphone.


“No, I’m here with—” Tara started and stopped herself, “I have someone with me, so…”


Emmy nodded along with Tara, then placed a hand on her arm and squeezed.


“Tara, you have nothing to feel badly about. Everything is so cool between us. I’m glad I was able to help you through something, even a little. That was a gift. I’d hate to think there was any bad energy between us. Have I made you feel uncomfortable?”


Tara felt the waves of harmony flow from Emmy to her and she flooded with relief.


“Thank you,” she replied sincerely, “That means a lot. And no, you haven’t, at all. It’s all my own stuff. But you’ve really made me feel a lot better.”


Emmy nodded once, still grinning from ear to ear; she seemed to suffer from the polar opposite of resting bitch face.


“Oh I’m so glad to hear that,” she said and went in for another brief hug, “I’ll see you around, Tara.”


“Emmy?” Tara asked, approaching shyly like they hadn’t just had the conversation they’d had, “The ‘story’…have you told people…or that it was me?”


“Your story to tell, Tara,” Emmy replied with a friendly wink, “I’m just the bit player.”


Tara exhaled quite a-many emotions in one short breath. Many months of worries dissipated in one go, except…


She waved at Emmy and turned back to find Willow. She didn’t have far to go, Willow was still making friends with all of the food on offer at the snack table.


When she spotted Tara approaching, she lifted a cookie to her lips and nibbled on it, purposefully slow and evocative.


Tara swallowed.


She had to ignore that.


For now.


She took Willow’s elbow in her hand and brought her into the corner.


“So, um, I was just speaking to, um, that girl up there with the band,” she said, gesturing toward the stage.


Willow looked over and spotted who Tara must be talking about.


“Is she a friend?” she asked with a smile, though it was faltered as she suddenly wondered if she’d made a faux pas, “Oh god, she’s not a celebrity I should know, is she?”


“Sh-she was,” Tara replied unevenly, “A friend I mean. Not a celebrity.”


She heard Willow make a sound of relief and tensed as she said her next sentence.


“I haven’t seen her since…band camp.”


“Oh?” Willow nodded, which gradually slowed as she worked out what Tara was saying, “Oh.”


She gulped.


“So she’s…”


“The girl who couldn’t make me forget about you,” Tara replied softly, her eyes piercing Willow again but this time with utter love and devotion.


Willow suddenly felt nauseous but tried not to let it overwhelm her.


“So she’s…here. Emmy. The Emmy. Not The Emmys, but the Emmy.”


“I didn’t know she’d be here,” Tara replied, trying to keep her voice low and respecting Willow’s space, “I bumped into her, literally. But we had a good talk. She made me feel less embarrassed about what happened.”


Willow blinked several times as she processed everything. Tara’s words were familiar, and she could only be happy that Tara was given the same respite of bad memories she was granted with Xander.


“I’m glad you got to see her again,” she said finally, nodding to herself mostly as a reminder that that was the right and deserved a response, “I know you were embarrassed. I know how much a relief it can be to know a stupid, crazy moment is really in the past. So I’m glad you talked.”


Tara almost looked more relieved to hear that than her conversation with Emmy.


“Thanks for understanding.”


She didn’t try to push a hug but she brushed her pinky against Willow’s, who smiled softly and linked them.


Another girl came up then and asked Tara about fixing some lights that had broken.


“Will you be okay for a few minutes?” Tara asked, looking at Willow intently enough to know she could say no and Tara would stay.


“Of course,” Willow replied, nodding her reassurance, “I haven’t even tried the star pretzels yet. They’re like a doughy Star of David. My dad would approve.”


Tara smiled at Willow’s humor and very discreetly pursed her lips in a kissing motion before walking off with her peer.


Willow walked around the table again, furtively casting glances at Emmy every so often to try and get a better look at her. After picking up a pretzel, covert glance #7 became a failed attempt as she was no longer on stage. Before Willow could even react, she realized instead that the girl was making a beeline straight for her.


Emmy arrived in front of Willow with a swing of her arms and a cheery smile.


“So I think you must be Willow,” she said, offering her hand, “I’m Emchelle but everyone calls me Emmy. Love your dress. Very mother earth chic.”


Willow tried not to choke on the bite of pretzel she’d taken and quickly wiped her hand on her side as she swallowed.


“Oh, hi,” she fumbled Emmy’s hand, “Hi. I said that. Hi.”


She tensed for a moment, then frowned.


“You know my name.”


“Tara talked about you a lot,” Emmy said brightly, “Last summer.”


She put her hands on her hips in a friendly manner.


“Do you know how I knew who you were?” she said, her eyes kind and tender as Willow shook her head, “By the way she stares across the room at you. I knew you must be the same girl because she looked like that when she looked at photos, but much sadder. Now I see joy.”


Willow reached across her body to hold her arm, looking around uncomfortably.


“We’re kinda low-key.”


Emmy nodded, respectful.


“Just don’t mistake low-key with low-love. She adores you. Don’t underestimate how special that is.”


Willow did a double take.


“I don’t, I—”


“I’m not trying to get up in your business, or harass you,” Emmy interjected quickly, her whole body moving to emphasize her words, “I’m just saying recognize that that special look in her eyes. That’s because of you. You give that to her. Don’t be afraid to own that. You are a bringer of joy, of Tara’s joy, and that is a role made just for you.”


Willow stared at the, slightly strange, woman who’d come up and invaded her space in the most polite and kindest of ways and immediately flipped the basket of insecurities inside her head out into the cold.


She was reeling slightly and as was often the case for her when too many thoughts and feelings bombarded her at once, the most inappropriate one burst to the forefront.


“I’m sorry I called you a slut!” she said, loud enough to get the attention of two guys getting a cup of punch.


Her hand flew to her mouth as her eyes grew wide in horror. She dropped it and smiled awkwardly at Emmy.


“I had an unfair prejudice against flute players. Gone now. Prejudice-free Willow here. But still. Very sorry.”


Emmy looked at her neutrally for a few long seconds, then her whole body bounced into a smile.


“Thanks for your honesty. I’m glad you worked on that. Be proud. Go you.”


Willow stared in disbelief at this perpetually cheery woman.


“Damn, Tara really must love me if she’s choosing me over you.”


Emmy laughed, a deep belly laugh that actually made her hunch over.


“You’re funny, Willow. I can see why you’re the ‘chosen one’.”


Willow waved her pretzel around, slightly uncomfortable with the attention on them.


“Well, you know, chosen people and all.”


Emmy threw her head back and laughed some more.


“You’re a hoot,” she said, then glanced over her shoulder to where her band was finishing setting up on stage, “We’re about to start our set. Hope to see you out there dancing.”


Willow nodded, then took a step forward between them.


“Um, Emmy?” she said, awkwardly fidgeting with her sleeve, “Thank you. For this and…being there for her when I cou—wouldn’t.”


“Living your best life is thanks enough,” Emmy replied, clasping her hands together and doing a slight bow, “Be brave.”


Willow watched the living embodiment of a ray of sunshine skip off, in slight disbelief.


“Probably super annoying before coffee though,” she muttered to herself as she finished off her pretzel.


The band started up and the floor filled up again. There were lots of very skilled dancers, and even the ‘bad’ dancers were at a level Willow could only dream of.


Willow went to the back of the room and spotted Tara chatting to a couple of friends they’d been in the limo with. She began to walk toward her, her hands spinning around themselves nervously.


Be brave, be brave, be brave, be brave.


She got to Tara, who instantly turned to give her full attention.


“Are you having a lousy time?”


“No, no, not at all,” Willow replied quickly, “I-I just, came to see…um…if you needed another drink or anything?”


She kicked herself for chickening out, but not enough to gather the courage.


“Oh, I’m fine, thank you,” Tara replied with a smile.


“I’m gonna go listen to the band,” Willow said, throwing her thumb over her shoulder indicatively.


“Do you want me to come?” Tara offered.


Willow shook her head that it was okay.


“No, you talk to your friends.”


She brushed her pinky against Tara’s again as she passed and felt that nice warmth settled in her belly. She moved to the front of the crowd and noted the band was a three-piece of girls. Emmy seemed to be doing backing vocals and keyboard. Another girl was playing guitar and adding in an occasional echoing vocalization, and the lead singer was dancing with the microphone stand as she sang into it.


Willow didn’t even know if they were doing covers or originals, she didn’t recognize any of the songs, but it was fun and pop-y and easy to dance to on her own.


She didn’t notice Tara casting glances her way and smiling.


A few songs in, she was as into it as everyone else in the crowd, and not a single person was sneering or jeering in her direction. A new song started and she felt the beat immediately.


Hoping, waiting for a chance I was never taking
Safe here, this fear, behind the smile I was faking



Her dress swished at her feet and she swayed and swayed.


Despite doubt, I stepped out into the future unknown
This I'm facing, heart racing, but I know that I'm not alone



Willow looked over to Tara just in time to see her laughing at something Nate said.


Nate threw a lazy arm around Tara and gave her a friendly pat on the back. Willow felt an uncomfortable shift inside her. She used the clapping at the end of the song to escape out the back door to get some air.


There was a bench against the outside wall, a strangely plain white one considering the robust artistic expression she’d seen displayed elsewhere in the school.


She stretched her legs out and closed her eyes, still able to hear the faint pump of the music as it blasted through the auditorium.


She wasn’t sure how long passed, but she was pulled back into the moment as a screech of loud music as the back doors opened again. Willow thought she’d been caught out, but it was just Tara approaching, smiling somewhere between relief and exasperation.


“There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you,” she said, placing her hand delicately on Willow’s knee, “You are having a lousy time.”


Willow shook her head.


“I just needed a break,” she said, leaning back with an arm stretched out either side of her, “And this trusty bench was here waiting for me.”


“Do you like it?” Tara asked shyly, “It’s one of my senior projects.”


Willow’s eyebrows shot up.


“It is?”


Tara nodded.


“You inspired it,” she said with a smile.


“Me?” Willow asked in surprise, and suddenly nervous that Tara saw her as a plain, white bench.


Tara ran a hand along the armrest.


“You told me in the hospital that you had a white cast but that white light is really just hiding the rainbow. I liked the symbolism of the color hiding in the ordinary.”


Willow was stunned, but also confused.


“Wait…rainbows?”


Tara bent down to get her purse, which she’d left at her feet. She fished out her phone.


“It’s better in the sun, but…” she stood and turned on the flashlight, waving it over different places on the seat and arms.


Willow finally realized there were flashes of silver and when the flashlight hit one at the right angle, it produced a light spectrum on the spot of the bench directly opposite. Upon closer inspection, Willow realized they were sculpted pieces of glass built into the frame that mirrored rainbows.


“When it’s sunny you get a bunch of pocket rainbows all at once,” Tara said, showing off a few more of the spots.


She sat again and Willow looked at her in awe.


“You are extraordinary,” she said, completely overcome, “The planning, the design, getting all those angles right…you’re amazing. You’re so amazing.”


“You’re amazing,” Tara returned softly.


Willow shook her head.


“My greatest accomplishment this year is getting Buffy and Xander up a letter grade.”


“And you think that’s not amazing too?” Tara asked in disbelief, “You helped them get better grades, improve their education. Shared your time and knowledge so selflessly.”


Willow cast her eyes downward.


“I am not selfless. I am quite selfish in fact.”


She crossed her arms lightly over her chest.


“Case in point…I’ve been jealous of Nate for a long, long time.”


Tara remained quiet for a few moments.


“Can’t you trust me?” she asked eventually.


Willow just nodded.


“It’s confusing for me. I thought I’d be jealous of Emmy…but I’m not. I totally get it, in fact. She gets inside you and makes you shine a light on all your positives in like 10 words. It’s crazy,” she laughed to herself, “She respected you and treated you right when you needed a friend. I’m not jealous of that. I appreciate it.”


She kept nodding, verbalizing what she’d spent a good chunk of the night thinking about.


“Admittedly, I got a little jealous when I saw all of your co-workers at the hospital that day. I wasn’t lying when I said I didn’t have a problem with it, it was just when I saw them and how gorgeous they are…but I also get that that is me being insecure, not me thinking that you actually wanted any of them. I know it’s not a real threat or anything more than my own pettiness.”


She grimaced.


“But Nate…it’s always bugged me. It bothers me seeing you together, seeing you interact. Seeing how he looks at you…I still think he had or has a thing for you, but that’s between you guys because I do trust you. But it still made me so angry.”


Her face bunched and released.


“I think tonight, I finally realized, I’m not jealous that you want him in any way, or even that he wants you…I mean who can blame him, right?” she stopped and looked up to Tara, swallowing, “I’m jealous that he doesn’t have to hide it.”


Tara exhaled a slow breath.


“Oh.”


All she could do was place her hand on Willow’s thigh and meet her gaze softly.


“You don’t either.”


Willow closed her eyes. Every day she believed it more and more.


Tara felt a dull ache in her chest, one she’d been feeling more and more each day too with the weight of one particular conversation they’d never had: what would happen when she left.


It felt so pointless to Tara when she didn’t even know when she’d get the money together, much as Willow assured her it would happen.


She felt Willow lift the hand on her thigh and kiss her knuckles and Tara felt everything else evaporate. She took her hand back and cradled it as if her favorite star had just kissed it.


Whenever the moment for that conversation came, it wasn’t right now.


Willow looked at Tara and offered her hand again. She might not be able to do this front and center, but she could do it out back in their own little private corner.


“My dance?”


The smile that lit up Tara’s face could have sustained Willow for years. Willow stood and brought Tara with her to a patch of grass directly under the moon.


Tara looked away bashfully at the intense stare Willow was giving her.


“What?”


Willow put her arms around Tara’s neck.


“Sorry, I just…” she sighed happily, “I can’t take my eyes off you.”


They swayed in that spot, arms around each other and nothing but each other in their thoughts.


Under the shadow of the night sky and every star that populated it, another line of their story was written.


A tale as old as time.


And just like time, no matter how much they had of each other, it was never enough.


It was bittersweet.


But it didn’t have to be.

Chapter Text


May
(Part 1)


I Don't Wanna Miss One Smile, I Don't Wanna Miss One Kiss

 

Tara checked her hair in her bedroom mirror, smoothing out the few stray pieces of hair poking out from her zigzag part.


She sat on her bed and brought her phone out in front of her. After fixing her position and leaning her head back at the most alluring angle she could think of, she found Willow’s name and pressed the little video icon. She waited for the call to connect.


Willow’s face filled the screen a moment later, her teeth flashing through her grin.


“Hey.”


Tara lifted her hands and waved her fingers by her shoulder so they were in-frame.


“Hey you,” she said, eyes momentarily falling to Willow’s lips, “You alone?”


Willow nodded and Tara bit the corner of her lip, ducking her head nervously for a moment.


Then she met Willow’s eye through the screen again and broke out her best Marilyn.


“Happy Birthday to you…Happy Birthday to you…Happy Birthday, Miss-President-of-the-Sunnydale-High-School-Math-Science-And-Computer-Clubs…”


Willow giggled, which just made Tara’s smile brighter.


“Happy Birthday to you.”


Willow was blushing, her smile as wide as her face.


“Wow.”


Tara’s gaze captivated Willow, playful and erotic all at once.


“If you want, I can come over and say Happy Birthday like I mean it.”


Willow spluttered and had to pat her own chest to stop from a deep cough from breaking out.


“I, ah, would love for you to give me a, um, meaningful Happy Birthday,” she said, eyes shining and clearly excited, “But I am alone in my room, not my house. My parents are home.”


“Oh, right,” Tara replied, blushing lightly, “Of course. That’s great, I’m glad. Will I get to see you today?”


“Yeah, of course!” Willow nodded eagerly, “I just have to go to the bank but then I’m free until dinner with my parents later.”


Tara’s nose scrunched up with her smile and it made Willow’s heart flip.


“Going to the bank on your birthday?”


“I have adult responsibilities now,” Willow replied sagely but wasn’t able to keep up the pretense without laughing, “Just want to get some stuff out of the way. And then the obligatory dinner.”


Tara sighed softly.


“That’s okay, I’m working an evening shift at Honkers anyway. The new manager is being so nice offering me shifts, I kind of have to take them whenever she gives them,” she said, her eyes betraying her tiredness, “Meet me after you go to the bank?”


Willow nodded.


“I’ll come get you.”


Tara pressed two fingers to her lips and blew a kiss, which Willow accepted with a smile before hanging up. Tara put her phone beside her on the bed and opened the middle drawer of her nightstand. She lifted out a gift box and removed the lid, looking through the contents.


She picked out one of the smallest contents and turned it over in her palm. It rolled from side to side, delicately pressing against her skin.


It was nice, but it didn’t feel enough, somehow; not special enough.


Then she had an idea.


She went to her sewing box and took out a needle, sticking it straight through the top. She used a piece of thread to get the measurement she needed but at that point became stuck with how to proceed. She didn’t have long to complete her plan, nor the resources.


She closed her eyes and quickly got a brainwave.


She pocketed the small item and hid the box away again, then began rooting through her closet. She found a plastic bag in the corner that would work for what she needed and grabbed it by the handle.


She threw open her bedroom door and pounded down the stairs, realizing too late that Kimberly was letting herself and Donny in at the same time.


Tara stopped on the bottom step.


She knew her brother had day release but she hadn’t intended on being around for the welcome party.


The three of them all froze at that moment but Tara didn’t back down from his gaze.


He looked dreadful but still healthier than ever. Eyes sad but brighter than she’d ever seen, skin fresh, beard neatly trimmed.


The last time she’d seen his face it was a blur fading to black as she lost consciousness tumbling down the stairs, yet somehow he still looked more stricken than her to come face to face.


For the first time in memory, he didn’t try to use his height to laud over her. He stood back, unthreateningly and spoke without slurring or aggression.


“Tara—”


“Can I borrow the car?” Tara interrupted, facing her mother entirely as if he wasn’t there.


Kimberly opened her mouth dumbly.


“Um—”


“I won’t be long, I just need to go to the pawn shop,” Tara continued insistently.


Kimberly blinked twice and offered the keys.


“Yes, of course.”


Tara grabbed them and sauntered off, leaving Donny shuffling away in her wake and Kimberly’s eyes darting back and forth to each retreating child.


When Tara was out of the driveway, Kimberly finally shut the door.



Kimberly was back at the door several minutes later when someone knocked.


She was slightly tense with it being Donny’s first trip home, but just smiled in relief when she saw it wasn’t a foe.


“Hello Willow, Happy Birthday, my dear,” she said, leaning across the threshold to give Willow a hug, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get a chance to bake you a cake this year.”


“That’s okay Ms. Maclay, I’ll get some for dessert later,” Willow replied brightly, “Is Tara here?”


“She’s popped out,” Kimberly replied in kind, “But she shouldn’t be long, she said she just had to run to the pawn shop.”


Willow gasped.


“What?!”


She felt her heart clench.


“No! She said she wouldn’t!”


In the middle of a sharp breath, she spotted Donny over Kimberly’s shoulder, coming from the kitchen with a can of soda. She felt rage boil over and when Kimberly would later tell the tale, she’d swear she saw Willow’s eyes turn black for a moment.


“This is all your fault!” she screeched, pushing past Kimberly to get up in his face.


Kimberly hurried over and took her shoulders from behind.


“Willow, sweetheart I know you’re just looking out for Tara—”


Willow spun around to face her, just as angry.


“Does he even know?”


She looked back at Donny, venomous.


“Do you even get it, how much of your sister’s life you’ve ruined?” she spat, “I know she won’t have said because even though you’ve done nothing but abuse her for over a decade, she’s still too freakin’ nice. You just take, take, take, sucking everyone into the void with you.”


Kimberly pulled Willow away with more force.


“Willow, that’s enough. That is enough!”


Willow brushed off the grip but kept her gaze on Donny, who was just standing there in silence.


“I’m glad you got help but it doesn’t erase all of those years and it sure as hell doesn’t erase Tara sacrificing so much just to gather the money she needs to get away from you. She loves each and every one of her instruments, they’re her babies!”


“Willow, Tara didn’t take her instruments,” Kimberly interrupted in annoyance, “You can go up and check her room if you want, but I saw her walk out of here with nothing but a plastic bag that wouldn’t even fit her neck strap. I don’t know what she was doing, but it has nothing to do with her music.”


Willow heaved a few deflated breaths and released the fists that had balled at her sides. She kept her gaze on Donny, who remained stoic and unwavering in holding her gaze.


“She’s still working her ass off for every spare dollar for the money you pretty much stole. Someone needed to say it. You don’t just get to indulge your own problems and ignore how much it’s hurting other people.”


His eyes flashed with something that was hard to identify because it had so rarely embodied him: empathy. Willow was unnerved by it and turned away, stomping back through the garden to the yard.


“I’ll wait outside.”


She pulled the door closed loudly behind her and angrily pounded down the driveway to sit on the short wall. She waited, her arms folded over her chest.


When the car finally turned back into the drive, Willow jumped up. Tara hopped out of the car, a smaller plastic bag hanging off her wrist and had a big smile on her face.


“Hey birthday girl,” she greeted, giving Willow a warm but respectable hug.


Willow had to close the hug but pulled back after a moment.


“You didn’t sell your instruments, did you?”


Tara frowned.


“What? No.”


Willow took a step back and sighed.


“Your mom said you went to the pawn shop. I thought you’d sold them and…I know how much they all mean to you. They’ve always been just… yours… and…I just don’t want you to lose what’s…” she paused and looked at Tara vulnerably, “Yours.”


Tara lifted her hands to hold Willow’s upper arms, but they dropped again when she saw a fleeting look of apprehension on Willow’s face. Instead, she put the tips of her shoes against the tips of Willow’s shoes so that they were touching in some, small way.


“I will never let go of what’s mine.”


Willow glanced down at their shoes and back up at Tara. She cracked a tiny smile, but it turned sheepish as she lifted her hand behind her neck and rubbed nervously.


“I may have freaked out a little bit.”


“Define ‘freaked out’?” Tara asked, brow creased in concern but lips tugging the corner of her mouth curiously.


Willow averted her eyes for a few seconds.


“I yelled at Donny… a lot.”


Tara considered that for a moment.


“Did he threaten you at all?”


Willow shook her head.


“No, he kinda just took it.”


Tara slowly smiled and very discreetly hooked her finger through a loop on Willow’s belt, pulling her just the barest inch forward before releasing her and rubbing her finger against the curve of Willow’s hip.


“My hero.”


Willow's toes pressed into the ground as she tried to steady her knees that threatened to quake.


“So, uh, why did you go to the pawn shop?”


The bag on Tara’s wrist blew in the breeze.


“You’ll see.”


The glint in Tara’s eye just made for sensation overload for Willow.


“Can we go somewhere I can give you a smooch?”


Tara’s eyebrows shot up; Willow hadn’t even looked around to make sure no one could hear her. The street was empty, but she hadn’t checked and was unselfconsciously grinning at Tara with hope.


“Um, yeah,” Tara replied, smiling ear-to-ear, “And where I can give you your gift.”


“Will it be in that order?” Willow asked, leaning up on her toes this time, making her overall bouncy and excited.


Tara swallowed as Willow’s breath briefly met hers before Willow landed back on her heels.


“Whatever order you’d like.”


“I’ll go with A, B, A, A, A,” Willow replied gleefully.


Tara automatically hummed the tune those letter notes produced, whilst Willow glanced either side of her where their respective houses were. The people residing in each were not who Willow wanted as company.


“Um…anywhere but between these houses?”


Tara glanced from side to side and nodded.


“Right,” she replied, tilting her chin toward her own house, “They’ll be going to lunch soon…we could hang out at our spot until then.”


“We haven’t been there since…since the swing,” Willow replied, language coded but face expressive, “The now beautifully unrecognizable one.”


“I guess we’ve been squirreled away,” Tara mused thoughtfully, not without intention, “There’s only one swing left now…but we could share.”


Willow smiled and nodded and they started walking down the street in the direction of the old park. After they turned from their street, Tara felt Willow’s hand swing into hers and her heart stopped beating for a moment. She wasn’t going to draw attention or make Willow feel uncomfortable, but she couldn’t help the smile that took over her face.


It was still there, though etched with some confusion, when they arrived at the entrance of the Paradise Park. Or at least, what used to be the entrance.


Willow stepped forward, brow creased.


“Hey, what’s going on?”


Tall metal railings extended the length of the area with yellow construction signs attached every few feet saying ‘Caution: Construction in Progress’ as well as notices of planning permits.


Willow read one, frowning sadly.


“They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.”


Tara smirked quietly and squeezed their palms together.


“Well, like you said, we haven’t been here in months. Maybe it’s time to find a new hideout.”


She paused for just a moment, looking straight ahead.


“Or maybe we don’t need a hideout at all anymore.”


Her eyes cast a sidelong glance toward Willow, who met her gaze and smiled softly.


“That doesn’t solve our current predicament.”


“Why don’t we just go get a coffee?” Tara suggested.


“Oh, like normal people?” Willow giggled, “I’m in.”


They walked to the Espresso Pump, where Tara had to push Willow’s hand away when she tried to pay for her mocha.


“Willow, stop. It’s your birthday. Let me buy you a coffee. You’ve helped me get so much income, it’s the least I can do. And um, did I mention it’s your birthday?”


Willow acquiesced and waited outside for Tara to bring the drinks since all the tables were taken up. It only took a few minutes for Tara to come out and offer a cup.


“Iced mocha, extra whip, and caramel drizzle.”


“Thank you,” Willow replied, smiling down at her perfect drink, which Tara hadn’t even needed to check with her if it was what she wanted.


Tara closed her hands around her own cup.


“You want to visit the other park? I guess it’s the only park now. I hear it’s pretty. I’ve only walked past, never through.”


“I’ve been in it, but never with you,” Willow replied sweetly.


Their new path led them toward the park and they remained side-by-side along the way.


“So how does it feel to be 18?” Tara asked, eager for some insight into Willow’s changed behavior.


Willow closed her eyes with the sun beaming on her face and considered how she was feeling.


“Freeing,” she said eventually, with a single sure nod of her head.


Tara could only smile.


“That’s good,” she replied, evenly but with the delight clear in her voice, “That’s great.”


Their arms brushed and the small pawn shop bag rustled between them.


“I kinda want to give this to you in private, if you don’t mind,” Tara said, then added on quickly when she saw the look on Willow’s face, “Don’t worry, it isn’t anything inappropriate.”


Willow blinked several times but Tara didn’t give her an opportunity to respond.


“What did your parents get you?”


Willow shrugged.


“Money.”


“Hence the bank,” Tara replied, not laboring the point at all, knowing Willow wasn’t the biggest fan of the impersonal gift from her parents. It was the reason she’d gotten Willow the gift she had, “I’m really glad we came, I mean, um, ventured out today. This is really nice, just taking a walk.”


They got to the entrance of the park and both of them threw their empty coffees into the trash can there. Everything was luscious green, the flowers were in bloom and there was a guy with a guitar playing music just for everyone to enjoy.


“Well, who wants to be cooped up on a day like this? The sun is shining, there's songs going on…” Willow started, her eyes following two young guys as they passed and how their gaze lingered on Tara, “…those guys are checking you out.”


“What?” Tara asked in confusion, turning to look, “Wh-What are they looking at?”


Willow rolled her eyes playfully.


“The hotness of you, doofus.”


Tara’s eyes scrunched and she looked back again to the retreating guys.


“Those boys really thought I was hot?”


Willow nodded, a grin pulling at her lips.


“Entirely.”


Tara’s eyes widened and she suddenly turned in the direction she’d been looking in.


“Oh my god. I'm cured! I want the boys!”


Willow grabbed Tara and pulled her back, smiling and shaking her head. Tara giggled and Willow linked their pinkies.


“Do I have to fight to keep you? 'Cause I'm not large with the butch.”


Tara smiled, thoughtful. She didn’t experience getting checked out at a lot, especially not like that — from people that didn’t know or speak to her and were just reacting to how she looked.


“I'm just…not used to that. They-they were really looking at me?”


Willow just looked at Tara with utter adoration.


“And you can't imagine what they see in you.”


Tara received the emotion on Willow’s face and realized the reason she stood out because she was returning the same look back. That kind of happiness was captivating.


“I know exactly what they see in me.”


She took Willow’s hands in hers.


“You.”


Willow was overcome and tried to wave it off.


“I don’t think so. You don’t want them to mistake my dorkiness for you.”


Tara just smiled and swung Willow’s hand between them. She'd never gotten to do that before.


“I’m a dork too.”


Willow barked a laugh.


“As if! You’re a cool musician, amazing creative person, and all-round non-dork.”


Tara shrugged one shoulder.


“I was a shy kid turned band geek who only stopped being teased because I went to a progressive school. To me, you were always the cool one.”


Willow’s mouth hung open.


“Me?”


“Yes, you,” Tara insisted, “You remembered every fact you ever read, and you showed me cool tricks like the Coke and Mentos one and you could reel off math like a human calculator. Oh, and you were never, ever scared of the monsters under the bed. You were my cool monster fighter.”


She brushed her thumb over Willow’s knuckles and smiled.


“You’ll always be my cool monster fighter.”


Willow swallowed deeply. They were silent for a while until Willow spoke again.


“You were right, this park is pretty. Seems silly now that we kept going back to hide in some overgrown bushes.”


Tara nodded.


“It does. But I’m glad we got here.”


Willow rested her head on Tara’s shoulder and they continued walking through the park. They stopped at the pond to skip stones and Willow let Tara twirl her when the busker/good Samaritan passed by playing. Today she only had eyes for Tara. At least until this high passed.


“He’s not as good as you,” Willow said quietly so only Tara would hear, “His music is pretty but it doesn’t speak to my soul.”


She briefly pecked Tara’s cheek, admittedly with a quick and furtive look around first, then shyly looked away.


They walked through to the opposite entrance and decided to head back to Tara’s house from there since it should be empty by now.


And so, she was frustrated to get home and see the car still in the driveway. She let herself into the house with Willow behind her, and Kimberly appeared from the living room.


“Why are you still here?” Tara asked arms crossed lightly over her chest.


Kimberly let out a short breath of sadness at Tara’s body language.


“You took the car keys,” she said softly.


Tara held up her hand and looked at the car keys jangling in them. She blushed.


“…sorry.”


She shoved the keys at her mother, who took them.


“Donny, let’s go,” Kimberly called back toward the living room, then looked at the two girls hopefully, “You know you’re both welcome to come to—”


“C’mon,” Tara said, grabbing Willow’s hand and pulling her upstairs.


Donny appeared in the corridor and waited respectfully until Tara was out of sight.


Kimberly put an arm around his shoulder.


“It will take time,” she said softly, “Old wounds don’t heal overnight. You know that.”


Donny nodded, shoved his hands in his pockets and followed his mother out to the car.


Willow closed Tara’s bedroom door behind them and watched Tara stand over the desk with her back to Willow, fidgeting with papers.


Willow walked over and put her hand on Tara’s back, swiping it across from one shoulder blade to the other.


“Doesn’t it drive you nuts that she took his side in all of this?”


Tara shrugged one shoulder.


“He’s her kid too, and there’s…deeper issues between them.”


Willow nodded.


“Right. About your dad.”


Tara sighed, trying to settle her hands.


“I don’t remember him but they do and they went through hell. And he was just a kid himself,” she said, some hurt in her tone but not collapsing under it, “It’s not an excuse for everything he put me through…I can’t even bear to be around him…but they’re hurting too and I’m not going to make it worse on everyone. That’s why I just want space.”


Willow wrapped her arms around Tara’s middle and rested her chin on Tara’s shoulder.


“Does that include from me?”


Tara smiled and rested her hands over Willow’s, finally finding what she needed to keep them still.


“Never.”


She enjoyed Willow’s embrace as she opened her laptop and set some music to play.


Suddenly I see,” Tara hummed and sang, “This is what I wanna be.”


She turned in Willow’s arms and crossed her hands behind Willow’s neck.


“Do you… want your birthday present?”


Willow nodded eagerly and Tara smiled.


“I believe you wanted a kiss first.”


Willow closed the gap and pressed her lips to Tara, so quickly that Tara let out a squeal of surprise.


Willow giggled against Tara’s mouth and Tara looked down with a smile.


“Close your eyes for a second.”


Willow complied and Tara guided her back until the back of her knees hit the bed. Willow sat and waited patiently, hearing some drawers opening and general rustling. Finally, something was placed in her lap and she opened her eyes. A wooden box, like a jewelry box, neatly treated and soft to touch.


Giddy, Willow placed her hands either side of it.


The box had two girls dancing under a rainbow designed on top, some etched and some carved, making a striking contrast. Willow ran her finger over it delicately, in awe. When she lifted the lid, the first thing she noticed was the underside of the lid had a collage of photos decorated in the shape of a heart. Upon closer look, it was all of them through the years. There was writing carved into the wood on all four sides.


Every memory of you in here…Is everything that I hold dear…Near or far, wherever life takes us…You are the thing that makes me most joyous.


“Tara…oh my god,” Willow said softly, her breath taken away.


After staring at the collage for several long moments, she realized the box actually had contents.


Lots of contents.


Notes they’d passed to each other as children, friendship bracelets they’d made, even old yellowed tickets to the first movie they’d seen in the theater together; the first movie they’d seen in the theater at all. There were rocks they’d found in funny shapes as exploring tweens, mouse ears from a trip to Disneyland, a glow in the dark star that had adorned the wall at prom.


Willow’s gaze slowly moved back up to Tara, stunned.


“You kept…you kept all of this?”


Tara smiled bashfully.


“You know me…never able to throw a scrap away in case I can use it for something later.”


Willow looked down again and there were two larger objects in the box, a teddy bear, and a small black box. She picked up the teddy bear first and stroked his soft fur, smiling. He had a heart pattern on his stomach too, an unusual beige tint with spots of color. It took a few moments for her eyes to focus and recognize the colors were characters, and another to realize she knew that pattern. Her head shot up.


“This…this is the Flintstones blankie we played with…it was our cape and our magic carpet and…”


“I found it going through old boxes for supplies when I was gathering things to sell,” Tara explained, a crooked smile forming on her face, “It was ratty and basically falling apart…so I thought I could come up with a better way to preserve it.”


She stood up and went over to her windowsill, picking up an identical bear and bringing it back. She brought it close to Willow’s, where the bears interlocked in a hug.


“A Willow-bear and a—”


“Tara-bear. A Tare-bear!” Willow replied, grinning, “I love it.”


She leaned in and pecked Tara’s lips, leaving the bears by them. She lifted out the velvet box.


“What’s this?”


Tara nodded at her to open it. Inside was a gold chain, with an unusual pendant hanging off of it. It was a tiny glass bottle, about the size of her pinky finger with a rolled up piece of paper inside and a cork sealing it.


“Message in a bottle,” Willow replied, smiling, “Cool.”


“I had this rolling around in the box, but I just this morning thought I’d like it to be a bit more…special. So I added the chain,” Tara replied, blushing, “I knew you would be mad if I spent any of the trip money, so I went to the pawn shop to trade instead.”


Willow looked concerned for a moment.


“Wait, what did you trade?”


“The video games I bought Donny for his birthday, which he definitely isn’t getting this year,” Tara answered curtly.


“Good!” Willow replied triumphantly, “Why were you still buying him birthday presents anyway? Has he ever gotten you even one?”


“Can we not talk about him anymore?” Tara requested gently.


“Sorry,” Willow replied, shaking her head and glancing down at her hand again, “I know there’s a story. Jog my memory.”


Tara began drawing circles around the bottle sitting on Willow’s palm.


“It was summer. We were nine and we were playing mermaids at the beach,” she said, smiling fondly, “You saw a glass bottle wash up and you got so excited, you thought it was a message in a bottle. But—”


“It was just an old Orange Crush bottle!” Willow replied, shock on her face for a moment, then a pout, “I still won’t drink it out of spite.”


Tara reached up and brushed her fingers against Willow’s cheek.


“You were so disappointed. I remember because I thought the look on your face was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen and all I wanted to do was take it away.”


She paused and ran the chain through her fingers.


“I wanted to get you gold because it lasts forever.”


She took in a steadying breath and met Willow’s eye.


“I know it’s not fair to ask you to wait—”


Willow closed her hand around Tara’s, the necklace dangling between each palm. Nothing was more intoxicating, more satiating or more emboldening than Tara holding onto her and promising to never stop making her feel whole.


There was fear, terror even, and nerves and nausea and the very distinct feel of panic right at the back of her throat that she never seemed quite able to swallow, but there was also Tara sitting there, earnest and true and she could not deny where her heart lay.


“It lasts forever,” she said softly, then once more for emphasis, “It lasts forever.”


Her gaze stayed locked in affectionate stasis until it finally broke and she ran her thumb over the bottle.


“What does it say?”


Tara smiled softly.


“It’s up to you to read whenever you want. It’s your message in a bottle.”


“Well, I’m going to make you read it to me,” Willow challenged playfully, “So maybe we’ll just have to stay together long enough for one of us to give in.”


She lifted the chain and held it around her neck.


“Until then, I’ll keep it safe.”


Tara reached behind and closed the clasp, leaving the bottle hanging neatly in front of Willow’s chest.


“I love you, Willow.”


Willow swallowed, clutching the bottle in her fist. She opened her mouth, closed it again and when it opened again she found Tara’s lips covering hers and a tongue slipping inside.


Her belly turned to mush and hands fell slowly between their laps. She touched Tara’s thigh and felt a soft moan fall into her mouth.


Her hands moved to Tara’s waist and she started to lean over, only to scramble to catch her memory box when it started to fall. She carefully packed her things away, set them on the floor and sprung herself on Tara, who fell back on the bed in surprise.


Her head hit the pillows and she took in a soft breath as Willow steadied on top of her. Keeping Willow’s gaze, her hands slid along Willow’s shoulders and up to meet behind her neck.


Willow’s eyelids fluttered as Tara’s fingers caressed the short hair already standing at the back of her neck. She held her weight up with one hand while the other curved around Tara’s hip. She kissed Tara once, twice, then three times in quick succession, letting her lips linger on the third.


Tara lightly tickled the back of Willow’s neck before sliding her hands down the collar of Willow’s shirt and grabbed her by the lapels to pull her into deepening the kiss. She swallowed one of Willow’s moans and both of them adjusted their hips simultaneously.


The minutes ticked by and they remained in almost the same position but a lot more energetic. Tara’s top button was open and Willow would kiss down to just above the swell of her breasts and back to her neck, while her hand reached under the shirt to cup Tara’s bra-clad breast.


Her cheeks were red and her hair was mussed and her hips would squirm each time Tara’s fingertips would brush the skin of her lower back and dip under the waistband of her panties to press into her butt.


Tara felt Willow’s body desperately pressing into her and knew hers was only responding in kind. Her heart was pounding between her legs and she felt the strain of Willow touching her as much as she could have even with her shirt off, but with the material still holding her like a prisoner.


Sometimes, like right then, Tara felt sure that Willow wanted to shred every piece of clothing between them, but that fear of being caught seemed profound enough to stop her and Tara would never push. One day they’d be truly alone and until then there was no amount of Willow’s mouth on her neck that could be considered too much.


Her eyes closed and the next time Willow’s mouth kissed below her ear, she turned her head and took Willow’s lips in a kiss. Willow pressed her thigh between Tara’s legs and Tara gasped. Her hands flew to cup the back of Willow’s head and twined her fingers in Willow’s hair.


Suddenly she felt something tickle her right where the pressure of Willow’s thigh was pushing into her so nicely. It pricked through the fabric and then there was a very distinct pulsation against a part of her that had already been aching with its own pulsation. Her stomach dropped and her hips jerked up repeatedly.


“Uhh,” she moaned, head flying back as her top teeth dug into her bottom lip, “Umh!”


Her hips twisted to avoid, or perhaps seek out, more contact.


“Willow, your phone is vibrating! Ringing! Your phone is ringing!” she gasped.


“Shit,” Willow whispered, rolling away to pull her phone from her pocket, “Hello? Yes. Yes. Yes, I know. Reservations. Yes. I’ll be home in a minute.”


While Willow was talking, Tara swung her legs off the bed and cupped herself as she closed her knees tightly to stem the throbbing.


Willow hung up the phone and took in Tara’s positioning with guilt on her face.


“I’m so sorry.”


Tara blushed and moved her hands to rest on her thighs.


“It’s okay. I know you have plans.”


Willow grimaced awkwardly.


“I’m sorry we didn’t get to…”


“Don’t apologize,” Tara interjected quickly, offering Willow a smile, if not without a wince underneath, “I hope you have a nice dinner.”


Willow leaned over and pressed a lingering kiss to Tara’s cheek. Tara nuzzled and Willow smiled again, feeling more comfortable. She stood up and walked over to Tara’s mirror to fix herself up.


Tara averted her gaze to avoid watching Willow’s butt and started fixing her own very-skewed shirt.


Willow picked up her memory box and stood in front of Tara. Tara looked up and smiled at her with such radiance, it almost bowled Willow over on the spot.


“Tara, I l…” she stopped and swallowed, looking down at the contents of her hands, “I love my gifts. They’re amazing.”


Tara covered Willow’s hands, holding onto either side of the box and gave them a squeeze.


“I’m glad,” she said sincerely and stood with Willow, “I’ll walk you downstairs.”


They walked downstairs together and Tara opened the door for Willow.


Willow waggled her fingers.


“Bye.”


“Bye,” Tara echoed, leaning her head against the door to watch Willow cross the street home, “Happy Birthday.”


She closed the door again, shifted her hips a few times and went into the kitchen to get a bottle of water.


Her mother was home again, sitting at the table with her laptop and work binder, probably making schedules for the nursing home.


She looked up and Tara hesitated.


“It’s just me. Donny is back at the center.”


Tara nodded once and continued across to the fridge. She took a glass from the cabinet beside it and used the fridge dispenser to fill it with water and ice. She briefly touched it to each cheek and her forehead before taking it to her mouth to sip. The shock of the cold certainly made the burn in her belly ice over, though a small shiver also went through her spine.


Kimberly watched Tara move about and it made her heart ache how much her daughter was avoiding eye contact.


“What can I do, Tara?” she asked, voice breaking, “How can I make up…”


Tara continued looking downward. Kimberly closed the lid of the laptop and sat back in her chair, pain etched on her still young face.


“Ignoring the problem for all of those years? How he treated you. Brushing it off as sibling squabbles.”


Tara looked up, her gaze penetrating across the room. Her mother had only ever explicitly apologized for having to use the money. Anything deeper had gone unsaid.


“Acknowledging it was a start.”


Kimberly looked stung, her hands turning over themselves in her lap.


“I know I’ve been focused on your brother’s recovery,” she said, voice echoing, “But you won’t speak to me. I can’t acknowledge anything if you won’t speak to me.”


Tears sprang to her eyes.


“I couldn’t even get a photo of you at your prom. I had to watch you walk across the street from the window just to see what you were wearing. You looked beautiful, by the way.”


Tara looked down again, but not for her usual avoidance.


“I’ve failed you both and you are the truly innocent party in all of this,” Kimberly replied, unable to stop a sob rising in her throat, “And I don’t know how to make it better. I’m your mother, I’m supposed to know, but I don’t. All those years I was terrified I was losing Donny to whatever destructive behavior of the week he was exhibiting, but through it all, I actually lost you.”


Her head dropped into her hands and Tara was over there like a shot. She couldn’t just leave her mother crying and not comfort her; it wasn’t in her nature. She pulled a chair close and placed her palm in the middle of Kimberly’s spine.


“This must be really hard for you. Do you have anyone to talk to? Your friends from work, or church?”


Kimberly barked out a laugh through the tears.


“And somehow I produced a beautiful soul like you.”


She looked up, eyes glassy and it was the first time there’d been a moment between them in weeks.


Tara swallowed and kindly offered some sympathy.


“You lost your parents…You had two babies when you were my age, I can’t even imagine…and you got us out of a terrible situation…” she recounted, realizing it was helping her as much as her mother, “You’ve sacrificed for us and worked your ass off for us…provided us…me…with opportunities. Everything that happened doesn’t erase all of that. You were, you are, a great mom. But it’s raw and I’m still hurt.”


Kimberly nodded, a swift bobbing of her chin as she listened. Tara felt a bit of relief as she came to a conclusion.


“I know what it feels like to know something will last forever, that a feeling will last forever. This isn’t it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t very real for me right now. So I just need some time and some space. But maybe we could start eating dinner together again.”


Kimberly took Tara’s face in both hands.


“You are so smart. You’re a gift to the world, never forget it.”


Tara blushed.


“I kinda missed having you chatter at me.”


“Well, I’ll give you chatter. You took a week off school, young lady,” Kimberly laughed as she dabbed her eyes with a tissue from her pocket, “I had to pretend you had the flu when the principal called. I didn’t even know.”


Tara just shrugged.


“All my projects were submitted. It didn’t affect anything.”


Kimberly cleared her throat.


“You were up for perfect attendance. You didn’t miss a single day in all four years before that.”


“Who cares?” Tara replied, holding her hands up, “It’s just a certificate. For not getting sick or needing a day out. That makes me lucky, not special.”


Kimberly gave a pointed stare.


“You get an iPad.”


Tara paused.


“Okay, that would have been pretty cool,” she admitted, smiling a crooked smile, “But still. My point stands.”


Kimberly breathed for a moment, her easiest breath in quite a while. She just looked at Tara and appreciated the moment of peace and harmony restored to the household.


“Did you have a nice prom?”


“Yeah, I did,” Tara replied dreamily.


Kimberly raised an eyebrow.


“You two are…”


“Good,” Tara confirmed with a single nod, “And private, still.”


Kimberly took both of Tara’s hands.


“I promised you, I’ll keep that promise. And Donny knows that too,” she said, before stopping for a moment to gauge Tara’s face, “He’d like to come to your graduation.”


“Excuse me?” Tara asked, eyebrows shooting up.


“He’ll have day release that Saturday,” Kimberly explained, but quickly reacted to the look on Tara’s face, “Okay, too much, too soon. That’s entirely your choice.”


Tara nodded that that was understood and checked her watch.


“I have to get to work.”


Kimberly released Tara with a pat.


“Thanks for talking with me.”


Tara stood and gave a reassuring smile.


“It’ll all work out the way it’s supposed to.”


“You sound sure of that,” Kimberly replied, bemused.


Tara folded her arms lightly over her chest and walked away confidently.


“I am.”



Willow pushed past her parents through the door to her house and made a beeline for the stairs.


“Don’t you think we should discuss this, Willow?” Sheila asked in a reasoned tone as she removed her coat and hung it up on the rack.


Willow hated that tone because it had the effect of making everything she said sound unreasonable. She paused at the foot of the stairs and turned back around.


“About what? How you hijacked my birthday to carry out some bogus matchmaking attempt?”


Sheila’s hands went to her hips importantly.


“Don’t be so dramatic, we did nothing of the sort. You were quite rude to our guests who came out to celebrate your birthday.”


“They weren’t celebrating anything,” Willow scoffed, “They were trying to set me up with their son, who has as little interest in me as I do in him.”


“I think young Richard has a fondness for you,” Ira added in, trying to be kind.


Willow audibly groaned.


She knew it was a bad night when Dickie Babcock had actually been the most tolerable one at the table. He’d even texted her while in the car about their parents plan to ‘encourage’ them and that was the first clue Willow had that she would be pimped out tonight. Of course, he’d only told her to warn her not to touch him, but she’d appreciated the heads-up nonetheless.


Add in the fact that she’d never given Dickie her number and it was clear there was parental interference in the works.


She would have stamped her foot if it wouldn’t have just made her parents seem all the more superior.


“How many times do I have to tell you I will not ever date Dickie Babcock or any boy!” she shouted, then felt a punching sensation to gut as those words hung in the air. Barely a second passed but it seemed like forever until words spilled out of her mouth again, “That you choose! Any boy that you choose!”


Sheila cast a sidelong glance to Ira.


“She’s trying to assert her independence to provoke our disapproval, classic teenage rebellion. Delayed, but textbook.”


Willow gestured down her body.


“Standing right here. Standing right exactly here! And I’m not trying to provoke anything other than your understanding that there will never be a merged Rosenberg/Babcock empire so just…quit it!”


Sheila’s face blanched with a sharpness that could cut glass.


“Oh Willow, you’re being ridiculous now, I’m not telling you to marry the boy.”


Ira stepped forward, between the invisible swords the two women were wielding. Willow saw the look on his face and the way he held himself tall, the position he took that said he’d have to be the rational male voice to insert some reason into the situation.


So many times she’d wanted to scream at him that their conflicts came from estrangement, not estrogen.


“Maybe we should let Willow make her own dating choices,” he proposed, offering a Willow a smile that tried to be empathetic but just seemed like pity, “I’m sure she’ll choose a nice boy when she’s ready.”


Sheila smoothed her hands out over her pants and adopted a balanced tone again.


“Yes, yes, of course,” she nodded amiably, “I apologize for trying to offer some guidance. You’re still in a perfectly normal stage of socialization development. My own sister, now she was a late bloomer. She had graduated from college before—”


“Can we leave the tales of Aunt Susan the Celibate until after my birthday?” Willow snapped.


Ira stood taller over her, voice turning authoritative.


“Willow, don’t be rude to your mother, she’s just apologized,” he said curtly, followed by a long sigh, “Willow, darling, no one wants to fight, especially on your birthday. It’s a very special day and we love you very much.”


He put an arm around her and Sheila joined him on the other side.


Willow felt trapped.


“I love you, too,” she replied jadedly; not a lie but not a joy either.


“We just want what’s best for you,” Sheila said lightly, and Willow guessed in some twisted version of reality that was probably true.


“I know,” she sighed, not fighting her way out of the embrace, no matter how unnatural it felt.


There’d been a time, not even that long ago, that she craved this kind of affection, would have done anything for it but she’d finally realized that it didn’t make her whole, it just sacrificed parts of herself.


They parted and Sheila patted her back before retiring to her study. Ira offered to make her a hot chocolate but Willow shook her head.


“I’m gonna go out for a bit.”


“I don’t like you being out this late,” Ira said, a note of sadness in his voice, “But you are of age, so I can’t stop you.”


“I’ll be okay,” Willow reassured and tried not to roll her eyes. He didn’t know how late she had or hadn’t stayed out for almost all of her entire teens.


Ira just nodded.


“Happy Birthday, sweetheart.”


Willow gave her father another hug and walked back out the door.



Tara used the soda gun to fill two mugs with frothy root beer and loaded them onto her drinks tray.


“Hey, Tara,” another server, Maddie, called over to her, “Table 26 for you.”


“That’s not my section,” Tara replied without looking around, “Isn’t that your section?”


The grin was obvious in Maddie’s voice.


“You were asked for specifically.”


Tara bristled; that often meant a guy who grossly misinterpreted a connection between them. She brought her tray of drinks over to the waiting table and then weaved her way across the restaurant to the lone person at table 26, head hidden behind the giant menu.


She fixed a smile on her face and placed one hand over the notebook hanging off her apron on her waist, while the other clutched a pen, ready.


“Hi, I’m Tara, welcome to Honkerburger. Can I get you a drink to start?”


The menu fell forward and Willow smiled at her from behind.


“I was going to ask for a tall drink of water, but she’s already here,” she said in an attempt at an evocative tone, but she immediately regretted it and took in a sharp breath, exhaling it along with her next words all at once, “I’msorryIthoughtthatuponthewayoverbutitwastotallylamecanwestartover?”


Tara just chuckled and tucked the pen behind her ear.


“What are you doing here?”


Willow found that action incredibly sexy and her gaze fell down and took in Tara’s uniform; tight white tank and a bright yellow pleated skirt…or close to it.


“Is that a skort?” she asked, voice high pitched, “Don’t see those much outside the tennis courts.”


“The new manager got us some more comfortable uniforms,” Tara replied, grinning on one side, “Back to you being here…?”


Willow forced herself to raise her gaze.


“I’m, um, here to support my…” she stopped and cleared her throat, begging her peripherals to fail so she wouldn’t still be able to see Tara’s ample cleavage, half of which was tastefully covered but with still an alluring line present that drew the eye in no matter the angle, “Support you.”


Her eyes slowly grew wide.


“And I just realized this probably looks like I’m checking up on you after what I said at prom about being jealous and that is so totally not what this is, I swear—”


“I don’t think that,” Tara cut her off gently.


Willow gradually relaxed and awkwardly played with her sleeve.


“Honestly I had a shitty night and I just wanted to see you. I know you’re working. I won’t hold you up or anything. Just seeing you makes me feel better.”


Tara cast a cursory glance around, smiling and raised her voice a tad.


“You want me to describe all the specials in detail, ma’am?”


“Huh?” Willow asked, then realization dawned, “Oh! OH, yes. Please. I’m very fussy. And allergies! I have so many allergies! If I even look at a peanut—”


“Okay, I think we’re good,” Tara whispered conspiringly, “I’m sorry you had a bad birthday. Your parents?”


Willow nodded.


“Yes, my parents, but please don’t think I had a bad birthday,” she replied, leaving her hand on the side of the table and gazing up at Tara lovingly, “I had a great birthday. There are no amount of negative points that could counterbalance all the positive ones you gave me.”


Tara brushed her hand against Willow’s and Willow immediately felt the lurch of upset and anger and uncomfortable feelings dissipate from her. Unfortunately, it left her stomach a little too empty.


“Actually I’d kinda like some wings. Is that weird to ask you? I was too busy sending angry glares at my parents across the dinner table to actually eat.”


Tara laughed again.


“Of course not,” she replied sweetly, “I’ll get you some food and I can knock off soon. Buffalo, right? Extra bl—”


“—ue cheese,” Willow finished with a smile, “Exactly right.”


Tara threw a sly wink.


“Won’t be long.”


Tara went to the register to ring up the order and deliver it to the kitchen. The new manager, Nascha, was loading glasses under the bar.


Tara keyed in what Willow wanted and glanced down at her.


“Can I ring up my staff meal for a customer?”


Nascha straightened herself up, glanced over to where Willow was failing to discreetly look at Tara.


She patted the back of Tara’s shoulder and grinned.


“Just this once.”


“Thank you,” Tara replied with a smile and keyed in her code.


She tended to her other tables and Maddie delivered Willow’s wings when the kitchen called. Tara cleared her tables as quickly and politely as she could and finally returned to Willow to collect the empty plate of bones.


“It’s on the house,” Tara replied as she lifted the dishes away from the table.


“Oh. Thanks,” Willow replied, hand on her wallet, “It feels weird to tip you, but I should tip you.”


Tara grinned.


“You can leave the tip, the girl whose section this is will get it.”


“Oh, I sat in the wrong place?” Willow replied awkwardly, “Story of my life.”


“Wait by the bar?” Tara requested and received a nod in return before she went back to the kitchen.


She detoured through the break room to grab her bag and met Willow back at the bar.


“Thanks for the food,” Willow said as they walked out.


“No problem,” Tara replied, throwing an arm over Willow’s shoulder in the cover of darkness, “How did you get here?”


Willow took her phone from her pocket and waved it.


“Oh, I got a ride.”


“I drove,” Tara replied, gesturing with a finger pointing in the direction of the parking lot, “I can bring you home.”


Willow reached up and linked her fingers with the hand hanging over her shoulder. She loved how protected and snug she felt under Tara’s arm and her confidence in doing it. Every part of her that had rejected this for so long for fear of being abnormal relished in how normal it felt just to walk along like every other couple. Even if it was only a few feet, in the dark.


Tara took the keys from her bag and pressed the button to open the doors, but nothing happened. She opened them manually, sighing.


“This thing is going to give out one of these days, I swear.”


She belted up and looked across the car at Willow, who was painfully obviously trying not to look at her.


“What’s wrong?” Tara asked, momentarily concerned.


Willow gulped.


“I’m trying very hard not to objectify you.”


Tara smirked, her lips sloping up on one side.


“What if I wanted you to?”


Willow’s blush was visible even in the dark, but her head couldn’t help turning.


“Do you get to keep the uniform after you leave?”


Tara’s eyebrow lifted on the same side as her crooked smile.


“Is that a request?”


Willow’s head snapped back to look in her lap and Tara reached over to give her thigh a squeeze of reprieve.


“I’ll get you home to bed,” she said, amused, but then found herself the one blushing as she put her hand back on the wheel, “To sleep. Home to sleep.”


She turned the engine on and the radio played out as she pulled out of the lot. Willow loved watching Tara get into her own groove while listening to music.


It didn’t matter what it was, Willow had seen Tara lose herself from Beethoven to Frank Sinatra to Taylor Swift to that crazy Japanese music she played sometimes. It was like the beat entered her nervous system and made her body move in perfect sync, right down her breathing and the way her eyes moved as they watched the road.


It's you and me against the world, there's no white flags when you're my girl.




Willow could only smile as Tara smiled in her direction, illuminated in soft amber as they paused at a traffic light. Tara didn’t need it though, Willow thought, her smile illuminated itself.


Tara pulled up on the curb outside Willow’s house and Willow was overcome by the small gesture of actually dropping her to the door when she could have gone straight into her own driveway and Willow would have just had to cross the street.


Tara turned the engine off and reached for Willow’s hand across the center console.


“Happy Birthday.”


Willow glanced at the red digits of the clock proclaiming it 00:01.


“Not my birthday anymore.”


Tara lifted Willow’s hand to her mouth and kissed her knuckles.


“Then happy new year of your life, which I just know will be filled with joy and new opportunities and will be everything you wish and deserve.”


Willow felt the deepest clarity she’d ever known wash over her.


“I really feel like it will too,” she said, exhaling a soft breath, “See you soon?”


Tara nodded.


“I’m always here.”


Willow left with a lingering smile and quietly let herself into her dark house. She saw her father’s head pop out from his study on her way upstairs and she lifted a hand.


“Night dad,” she whispered.


Ira lifted his hand in the same manner and Willow continued up to her bedroom, checking out her window to see the light go on in the house opposite so she knew Tara was in safely. Once she was sure, she sat on her bed and took out her phone, seeking a number she never thought she’d be texting willingly.

 

Image

 

Her face scrunched up in frustration, which was appropriate for the recipient in question.

 

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Chapter Text


May
(Part 2)


Over And Over, The Only Truth
Everything Comes Back To You


The weight of Donny’s heavy shoes made the steps on the staircase creak as he walked up them.


When he got to the top of the stairs, he reached into an inside pocket in his jacket and retrieved a thick envelope. His thumb flicked through the contents one more time and held the flap closed. He bent his knees and placed the envelope flat on the ground and he pushed it under the doorframe in front of him until it had fully disappeared. He stood again.


He turned to go back the same way he’d come up, but the door swung open unexpectedly.


He looked startled; his mouth opening and closing.


“I-I thought you’d left, I—” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder, “I saw the car go.”


Tara stood in her bedroom doorway, her hair straightened on one side and still wavy on the other, holding the bulging envelope and eyeing Donny up and down suspiciously.


“Mom went to get sunscreen, the ceremony is outdoors,” Tara replied in a clipped tone, holding the envelope away from herself, “What is this?”


Donny stuffed his hands in his pockets.


“I-It’s money.”


Tara’s eyes narrowed. He wasn’t usually the one with the stutter.


“What’s it for?”


“It’s what you need, right?” he asked, eyeing the floor, “To buy your ticket? Is it enough?”


Tara lifted the opening of the envelope, her eyebrows shooting up her forehead as she saw the stack of green bills. She briefly thumbed through them and felt her heart thud as she did the quick math.


“Where did you get this?” she asked accusingly.


Donny scuffed his shoe against the wooden floor and never had his tall build looked so small to Tara.


“I sold my bike.”


Tara was stunned into silence. She looked between the envelope and her brother, meek and docile, and tried to understand.


“What is this, amends or something?”


Donny shook his head, still not looking at her.


“No. That’s step nine. I’m not there yet.”


Tara’s brow slowly scrunched into a frown.


“You can’t just throw me a few dollars and think—”


“I don’t,” Donny looked up and cut her off in such a soft-spoken way it unnerved Tara to the core, “I’m just making up the easiest part of my mistakes. I know the hard stuff will take a lot longer.”


He took a step back.


“I won’t bother you anymore. I didn’t think you were in there. I’m sorry,” he said, those two words passing his lips to her for the first time in his life, or at least many years, “Enjoy your graduation.”


He took the first step back downstairs until Tara’s voice called out to him.


“If you want to sit at the back, you can,” she said, her voice wavering and unsure, “And you need to find your own way there.”


Donny looked back, nodded once and continued downstairs. Tara shut her door and leaned back against it, again looking through it, waiting for the shoe to drop that this was all some practical joke.


When she finally realized that this was really happening, she sank down onto her bed, staring at the envelope of cash that represented her hopes and dreams.


She didn’t know how to feel at all.


She quickly put it away safely into the lockbox she kept her tips in until she could get to the bank and busied herself with finishing getting ready.


When she’d dressed, in a yellow and white patterned summer dress that went just below her knee, she walked downstairs, where Kimberly was waiting for her.


“Oh, sweetheart, you look stunning,” she said, hand over her heart and a lump in her throat, “Where’s your cap and gown?”


Tara gave a resigned smile that every child was familiar with and went to the coat closet. She put her cap and gown on and immediately Kimberly was snapping photos in her face.


“Mom, stop.”


“Just smile for one,” Kimberly pleaded.


Tara fixed the same smile on her face and stood still for considerably more than one photo.


“Mom, we need to go…”


“Okay, okay,” Kimberly replied, sniffling.


“Oh, Mom, please don’t,” Tara said, tensing as she did not want to sit in the car with her mother sobbing over her impending graduation.


“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Kimberly replied, the second iteration a little clearer than the first, “Come on then.”


She held the door open for Tara and stepped through it, looking back sadly before getting into the car.


Tara waited in the passenger seat of the car, tapping her fingers against her thigh. Once they were on the road, she glanced over at her mother.


“Did you tell him to?”


“What, darling?” Kimberly asked in confusion, “Who?”


“Donny,” Tara replied cagily, “Did you tell him to?”


“Tell him to what?” Kimberly asked, her voice rising with concern, “Did he hurt you? He went off on his bike this morning, I thought he’d be gone for the day. It wasn’t there when I got back. Oh god, what has he done?”


“No,” Tara interjected quickly, “No, he didn’t hurt me. I’m sorry, I was mistaken.”


Kimberly’s chest was rising higher than normal.


“If something has happened, I—”


“It’s nothing,” Tara reassured, putting a hand on her mother’s shoulder, “Really.”


Kimberly glanced over at her at a traffic light, worried.


“Honey…”


“It’s okay, Momma,” Tara said softly, “I promise. Nothing for you to worry about.”


Kimberly slowly relaxed and nodded, then smiled. She opened her mouth like she was about to say something, then seemingly thought better of it.


“You have earned this beautiful day.”


The sun was indeed shining and continued to be when they arrived at the graduation ceremony. It was a compact space, a field hockey pitch, which was the only sports field on campus. Tara allowed her mother to take a few more pictures before she went to join her class at the front. She smiled at the people sitting around her, familiar faces though not ones she hung out with regularly.


Everything felt like a bit of a blur. She’d enjoyed her time at this school, made some friends and pursued interests a lot of teenagers never had the opportunity to. But for the first time, she felt truly uneasy about how her future looked.


She glanced behind and felt a squirming in her stomach as the seats filled up and the ceremony was clearly imminent.


Music played and the senior faculty said a few words. With no valedictorian or other class-ranking rituals in play at this school, suddenly Tara found herself shuffling along with the heard of cap-and-gowns to line up and take that stride across the stage.


The diploma felt lighter in her hands than it should, she thought, considering all it represented. She moved her tassel and looked out to the stage for the photo she knew her mother would want to take and stayed still as she took note of the note one, but two sets of hands clapping for her.


Another name being called had her rushing off the stage before there was a collision. She then waited with the gaggle of giddy students ready to throw their hats and declare their freedom.


Tara felt the sun catch her face as her hat sailed three feet in the air. She felt a perfect moment of peace, right until the shower of hats that had been so carelessly flung into the air rained back down on them all and she got slapped in the face with one.


Her face scrunched for a moment and then she laughed, it bubbling up from her throat and spreading out infectiously amongst the group.


That was it.


It was officially over.


They were done.


She was done.


Parents started to come up to their children and so Tara sought out her mother, who was smiling proudly, though with crinkles of concern creased at her eyes.


“Donny said you said he could come?”


Tara glanced at Donny near her and back at her Kimberly. She just nodded and Kimberly threw her arms around her in relief.


“You were wonderful. I’m so proud of you. My baby girl! I can’t believe my baby girl has finished high school.”


Tara allowed her mother to gush and hug and generally delight and despair at the exact same time. Tara started to get way too hot, so she removed her cap and gown and folded them into Kimberly’s hands when she had an opening.


“Would you keep these safe for me? I might want to do an art project or something with them someday. I’m going to go see my friends.”


Kimberly nodded, fixed the straps on Tara’s dress and gave her the thumbs up.


Tara approached Nate and tapped him on the shoulder. She smiled when he turned to her.


“Nate Williamson, official freshman of the Manhattan School of Music.”


Nate threw his arms around Tara and pulled her into a hug, picking her right up and making her laugh.


“Tara Maclay, lookin’ fine as a future student of the world.”


“Maybe,” Tara replied, straightening herself up again, “When are you off to New York?”


“Residence halls don’t open until August,” Nate nodded easily, “Me and the boys are thinking of doing a road trip to get there though. Make a summer of it.”


Tara lightly slapped his upper arm.


“Remember me when you’re famous.”


Nate stopped to look at Tara with a fond smile.


“Hey,” he said softly, his deep brown eyes looking right into Tara’s, “Playing with you was the raddest of all my time here.”


Tara held her arm across her chest, peering at the ground.


“I would never have played a show if you hadn’t convinced me to start out with you. I’d still be a lonely girl playing piano by herself after school.”


“Thank god I forgot my capo and walked in on you that day,” Nate laughed, kicking the grass by Tara’s foot, “I wouldn’t be the musician I am without you.”


Tara looked up to meet his gaze.


“Me either.”


Nate took her hands, held them in his for several seconds, then finally let her go.


“We’re all hitting a party in a warehouse downtown, open season for the stage,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “What do you say? Give Insect Reflection one last hurrah?”


Tara didn’t hesitate to nod.


“Maybe we’ll finally turn into Eagle Reflection.”


Nate laughed to himself as he led them away from the field hockey field, away from the school and away from their lives for the past four years.


“I never got all that stuff, y’know.”


Tara just smiled, dignified and amused.


“Trust me, it’s funny.”



Willow waited in an alleyway next to two industrial size dumpsters, wishing for the hundredth time that she’d insisted on choosing the meeting point.


She swore he was late on purpose just to make her stand there in the stink.


Finally, a black BMW 3 series pulled up and the driver’s side window slid down slowly.


Willow stepped up, cautiously.


“Dickie,” she ‘greeted’, giving him a nod, “You got it?”


Dickie reached onto the passenger side, lifted a brown envelope and pushed it out against Willow’s chest. Willow took a smaller envelope out of her pocket and handed it to him. He flicked through the bills inside, counting them, and tossed it onto the passenger seat.


“We’re even, Rosenberg,” he stated, raising an eyebrow, “Have a nice trip.”


Willow started to thank him, but Dickie cut her off with a smarmy smirk.


“And hey, if you’re ever looking for a third…”


“You’re such an asshole!” Willow called as Dickie drove off, cackling, “Remember our deal, you keep your mouth shut and I keep mine!”


“I’m not an idiot, red!”


Dickie flipped her the bird out the window. Willow scowled in his general direction and muttered ‘debatable’ before opening the envelope and sliding out the contents.


“Wow,” she whispered as she flicked through it all.


She sealed it back in the envelope so it wouldn’t soak up any garbage stench.


A quick stop at the party store and she would finally be ready.



Tara laid on her side in her bed, her lockbox open as she counted the bills inside.


She had come straight upstairs after leaving the graduation party and returning home, barely missing another session of maternal gushing. Her dress hung a bit looser on her after the hours of partying and playing.


It had seemed like she had some instrument attached to her every second and while it had been the ultimate in jam sessions, it was physically exhausting. As if the day hadn’t been emotionally draining enough as it was.


And now here she was, a choice on the horizon and she suddenly knew how all of her peers felt choosing colleges.


A knock at the door disturbed her counting and she quickly closed over the box and slid it under her pillow. She stood up and realized it was time to change as parts of her dress poked out in different directions from being disturbed from her lounging about.


She opened her door and before she could even see who was on the other side, she heard and felt a party popper go off in her face.


“You did it!”


Now that voice, she recognized.


“Hi baby,” she said quietly, only loud enough for Willow to hear, “I did it.”


The confetti cleared and Willow was revealed, empty popper in one hand and a congratulations balloon and small boutique bag hanging from the other wrist. Tara stood aside to let Willow into her room, balloon bobbing along after her. Tara backed up against the door to close it when Willow was inside.


“Sorry you couldn’t be there; there was a strict family-only policy. It’s a small campus.”


“It’s okay, but you’re still coming to mine, right?” Willow asked hopefully.


Tara smiled and nodded.


“Of course. I’m thrilled you want me to come.”


Willow glanced Tara up and down and began bouncing on her toes in the same rhythm.


“You look so pretty, I love you in dresses,” she gushed effusively, biting her bottom lip to contain the other emotions threatening to bubble out.


As she took in Tara’s face, she began to slowly frown.


“Why do you also look so sad?”


“I’m not sad,” Tara replied, a furrowed line in her brow.


Willow’s eyebrow arched.


“Have you told your face?”


Tara crossed her arms lightly over her chest.


“I had a great graduation. I said goodbye to everyone and we partied and played and it was wonderful. I should probably change, but I’m definitely not sad.”


“Okay…” Willow replied, unconvinced.


Tara sat on the edge of her bed.


“I guess maybe I’m a little bit, um, pensive,” she conceded, swallowing deeply for a moment before slowly lifting her gaze to Willow’s, “Because I’ve decided not to go on the trip. At all.”


Everything dropped from Willow’s hands, except for the balloon tied on her wrist which flew around wildly as she gesticulated.


“What?!” she exclaimed, mouth hanging open, “But…but why?! You’ve…you always wanted…a-and, and finding yourself and…”


“I’m actually pretty sure of who I am,” Tara replied evenly, “And how I see my life.”


She stood up and crossed the small space to take both of Willow’s hands, trying to ignore the balloon dipping between their line of vision every couple of seconds.


“And how I see my life…is with you.”


Willow felt the air rush from her lungs.


“Tara,” she croaked, her mouth suddenly dry.


The balloon booped her nose and she started aggressively attacking the string on her wrist.


“Jeez!”


She grabbed a pencil from Tara’s desk and popped the balloon, watching the string that was chafing her wrist fall underneath her.


Tara watched the whole thing play out, looking more than a little scared.


“U-Unless you don’t want me too.”


Willow realized how her aggression was misinterpreted and was quick to retake Tara’s hands.


“I want to be with you. I always wanted to be with you, even if it was thousands of miles apart.”


She watched as Tara’s eyes slowly returned the loving stare she was used to.


“I’m not putting this decision on you. I’m making the choice. Me. All these obstacles came up, maybe for a reason and this morning I got all the money and I just wasn’t as excited as—”


“You got the money?” Willow interrupted, wide-eyed.


Tara nodded slowly.


“Donny gave it to me. He sold his bike.”


Both of Willow’s eyebrows rose.


“Whoa. I thought he loved that thing.”


“He does. Did,” Tara replied, frowning, “He came to my graduation…I said he could if he find his own way, which I thought would be enough for him not to bother but…he actually came. And sat silently. And clapped. And held my mom’s purse.”


Willow didn’t have enough time to process all of that before Tara was speaking again.


“Anyway, I was thinking instead of doing a road trip this summer. Nate is doing one and it seems like a cool idea.”


“You’re doing a road trip with Nate?” Willow tried to work out slowly.


Tara looked horrified.


“No, god no,” she clarified, shaking her head quickly, “A road trip with a bunch of guys? No thank you. That car will probably dissolve under the smell by the time they get one state over.”


Willow smiled at the joke, making Tara smile back.


“But I could do it myself, or maybe you’d even come along for part of it. And then I could work for the year…n-nearby and see if I want to apply to colleges next year. I’d still be living in the real world for a year and I could make smaller trips. It would just be a different way of doing things.”


She seemed like she was trying very hard to make herself believe that.


Willow was frowning deeply.


“Is that really what you want? What about all the plans you made you were so excited about? You can’t go to…South Africa when you have a weekend off.”


Tara played with her own earlobe shyly.


“I just can’t see how I could enjoy it without you.”


Willow blinked once and slowly smiled.


“Wait, just wait for a second, because I think we might actually be on the same page,” she said, stepping up right in Tara’s space so her smile was unavoidable, “What if we did things the other way around? Instead of you staying?”


That line in Tara’s brow furrowed all over again.


“What are you talking about?”


Willow looked around, spotted the small bag where it had fallen from her wrist and presented it to Tara, with a soft, nervous inhale.


“This is your graduation present.”


Tara took the bag and looked for a name to give her any indication of what might be inside. There was nothing, just plain cream cardboard and a maroon ribbon tying both sides together.


She pulled the ribbon free and reached into the bag. She wasn’t sure what she was expecting but was still surprised as she took out a small booklet. As she turned it over in her hands she realized it was a little comic book, just a few pages long.


She found the front page and read the title, stretched out over a rainbow as two characters danced underneath.


The Adventures of Yabba and Dabba


“Oh my god,” she whispered quietly as she sank back onto the bed.


Each page had two panels, which had the two of them drawn in one of their different adventures, at all different ages, all plucked from real-life stories, from memories in the memory box Tara had given Willow.


The very last panel was noticeable as it was a singular frame with white space around it that made it stand out. It was also in a different style to the others and Tara immediately found it intimate. It was clearly the two of them in an embrace, eyes locked and Willow was speaking to ‘her’.




Zoom in (real dimensions: 473 x 743)

Image




“I did the last one myself. I wanted to keep it simple. My doodles aren’t generally immortalized,” Willow chuckled nervously, “Dickie Babcock helped me do the rest. He does comics. He’s actually not supremely awful.”


Tara raised her gaze with an unconvinced arched eyebrow.


“Don’t get me wrong, he’s awful,” Willow clarified, “Just not supremely.”


“Why would he help you do something nice for me?” Tara asked, suspicious.


“Mutual enlightened self-interest. He’s blowing off his parents’ school wishes too, going to art school instead of being the 10th generation whatever at Stuffy White Guy college. Plus he owed me one,” Willow replied, trying to pretend she wasn’t freaking out at Tara’s non-reaction, “And I paid him.”


Tara put a hand up.


“Wait, I’m sorry…blowing off his parents’ school wishes ‘too’?”


Willow’s heart began to thud.


“Look at the back.”


Tara turned the comic over and gently ran her hand down the colorful page.


There was a drawing of them sitting in a little two-person plane, flying toward an illustration of the globe. It was stylized like a preview of the next comic.


In our next adventure: Yabba and Dabba Doo The World.


Tara slowly drew her gaze back up to Willow, keeping the comic in her lap.


“Willow this is absolutely beautiful,” she said, softly and appreciatively, “But I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”


Willow clasped her hands together to stop them from fidgeting nervously.


“Well I was wondering, see, and you can totally say no; you should, in fact, say no if it’s how you feel, and I want you to be really, really honest because I in no way want to impose on you or the journey, or your journey, you know and—”


Tara slid the comic off her lap, reached out and slid her hands along Willow’s arms until they broke her grip and she could slide both sets of fingers together. She gently tugged Willow forward the foot or so between them, fluidly moved her hands to Willow’s hips and pulled Willow into her lap.


Willow was impressed with the grace and speed of Tara’s movements, but mostly that no matter how much she looked into Tara’s eyes, she always found a new depth to them.


She swallowed several times.


“I’m sorry, did you think this would make my thoughts clearer?”


Tara trailed a finger either side of Willow’s face, meeting under her chin to tilt it up.


“More like a reboot.”


She pressed her lips to Willow’s softly and lingered just long enough for Willow’s shoulders to relax.


Willow took in and released one long breath.


“Your methods have merit.”


She slid off to Tara’s side, because her thighs spread over Tara’s lap like that was far too distracting, and prepped herself for what she needed to say. She rested her forehead on Tara’s like she had in her comic.


“Ever thought about a travel buddy?”


Tara’s face moved through a flurry of emotions.


“W-What?” she asked, peering at Willow on confusion, “What do you mean? Do you mean for the summer? The road trip?”


“No, forget the stinky road trip,” Willow replied dismissively, “I mean for the real thing, the whole thing. The trip you always wanted just…together.”


Tara was just stunned, blinking rapidly and trying to reconcile everything in her mind.


“How…? What? Why?”


She paused to catch her breath.


“School, Willow, what about school?”


Willow stood up and began to pace, her words coming out frenetic and through pauses.


“I thought about this, I’ve thought about it so much, in so many different ways. And I’m not ready to just trade one institution for another. Another four years of slogging away for some misplaced sense of achievement, I don’t want to do what’s expected of me. I want to learn about the world and myself and all the things that can’t wait, but college can. Even if you say no, and again if that’s what you want, I want you to be honest. But even if you say no, I’m doing this some other way. I’ve already made the arrangements. I couldn’t go to school this year even if I wanted to.”


Tara’s mouth hung open.


“You…cancelled college??”


“I just deferred,” Willow replied quickly, “It’ll all be sitting there waiting for me nice and pretty next year. Books can wait.”


Tara’s eyebrows had essentially merged entirely with her hairline.


“Am I speaking to Willow Rosenberg?”


Willow flopped back down next to Tara and took her hand into her own lap, playing with her fingers.


“You are. Maybe for the first time. This has been a long time coming. I always thought you making this choice would ruin your life…I finally realized me letting other people make or push their choices on me was ruining mine.”


This was a lot for Tara to process; her two dreams were coming together in the best way she never thought possible.


“Is this really happening?”


Willow finally paused, a smile lighting up her face.


“I don’t know. Is it?”


Tara swallowed deeply.


“I want it to be. Are you sure?


Willow nodded, still smiling.


“Yes. And it’s about one of the only things I’ve ever been truly sure of. Are you in?”


“I couldn’t be in more in,” Tara replied, laughing and covering her mouth with her hand, “What do we do? Where do we go from here?”


“It has to be a secret, but only until we can get our tickets confirmed. If you already have the money, we can get them soon,” Willow said, squeezing Tara’s palm excitedly, “I’ll find a good place we can meet to plan it.”


“Why can’t we just do it here?” Tara asked, lowering her voice in line with the secrecy.


“Because if we get caught it could jeopardize the whole thing,” Willow explained, gulping, “My parents are…not going to be happy. I would not put sabotage past them.”


Tara seemed concerned, though Willow was just determined.


“But I’ll be happy…and for once I’m choosing me.”


Tara reached up and caressed Willow’s cheek.


“I can attest that choosing Willow is a choice well made.”


Willow bounced on the spot and lifted Tara’s hand to her chest, putting it over her heart.


“I’m terrified, can you feel my heart?”


“I always feel your heart,” Tara replied softly, splaying her fingers out to feel the thud, “I can’t believe you’ve been planning all this and you didn’t say a word.”


Willow’s eyes were bright with hope.


“You’re really in? We’re doing this?”


Tara rested her forehead against Willow’s, syncing their breathing as she did so.


“We’re doing this.”



Tara tied her bike to a bike rack in an alley and walked out onto the street to look up at the sign on the establishment.


She was at the right place, meeting Willow in a bar called O’Malley’s.


She pushed the door open, and the place was almost empty. No one sitting at the tables and just one older man sitting at the bar, hunched over and nursing a beer. The music was melancholy and the interior was drab and there was a lingering smell like what the nursing home Kimberly worked at smelled like, combined with the yeasty smell of beer and sadness.


Tara thought she must have gotten the venue wrong, but then she saw a mop of red hair pop out from one of the booths.


“Tara, hi.”


“Hi,” Tara replied, cautiously striding over and swinging her backpack off her shoulder as she slid in opposite Willow, “Why are we meeting here again?”


“Because it’s one of the only places in town I can be sure my parents don’t know anyone,” Willow replied, just as a plate was placed on the table and slid in front of her, “Plus I like their loaded sausage potato skins. This is kinda my den of pork-eat-ity.”


“I see,” Tara replied, amused, “And I thought I was your dirty little secret.”


Willow choked and grabbed at the glass of soda sitting in front of her to gulp it down. While she recovered, Tara noticed there was a glass on her side as well and smiled as she took a sip: cherry cola. It tasted sweeter knowing Willow always knew what she wanted.


Willow cleared her throat and looked grateful that Tara was pretending not to notice her throat’s protest. She noticed the binder Tara was taking from her backpack and her eyes lit up with excitement.


“Ready to plan our escape?”


“You are going to tell them aren’t you?” Tara asked with a grimace, “Not just send a text from the airport?”


“Yes,” Willow insisted, “But they are going to Freak Out with a capital ‘F.O.’ which is only one letter different from what they’ll probably want to yell at me when I tell them.”


She sighed.


“I just need to be prepared. Everything paid for, organized. I’ll have my bags packed and I was hoping I could hide them in your room.”


“O-Of course,” Tara replied nervously, “Do you think they’ll kick you out?”


“I don’t know,” Willow answered honestly, “There’s nothing they can do, nothing they can change but this is a whole new defying Willow. Unchartered territory. That’s why I have all of my important documents in my safety deposit box, my money is secured in my own account they have no access to, I have my own credit card, I’m organizing my own insurance. To protect myself…and to show them too, that I’m not just making some rash decision.”


Tara started to reach across the table, thought better of it and slid out of her seat to scoot in beside Willow.


“I can’t promise what will happen…but I can promise I’m here for all of it. You have a place by my side as long as you want it.”


Willow hid her face in Tara’s shoulder and held her hand under the table. After a moment, she lifted her head but kept her hand in place, and used the other to pull Tara’s binder forward.


“Can I see?”


Tara nodded and opened the cover.


“This is what I had planned out…before. We can change it up—”


“This is exactly what I need. To take a leap of faith. And I trust you,” Willow replied with a soft sincere smile, “Show me where we’re going.”


Tara returned the smile and began talking Willow through everything.


Willow felt a bit giddy as she realized how thorough and well-organized Tara’s binder was. It was tabbed and color-coded by continent; country in order of direction and seemed to have reams of information of experiences to have in each place like a never-ending binder of multicultural adventures.


Honestly, she was a little turned on, but their conjoined hands were in her lap and Tara’s fingers were brushing her thigh, which didn’t help.


“There’s a basic route, but we can make lots of choices on the fly, get around on trains and buses, cheap point-to-point flights,” Tara explained, tucking some hair behind her ear, “I really wanted to have the info but I didn’t want to limit myself, y’know?”


She looked up at Willow and shyly scrunched her nose.


“These are my must-dos, you can let me know if you have any too…”


Willow had spells of being mesmerized by how Tara described everything; it was as animated as she’d ever seen her.


“Wow, Tara this is…better than any guidebook. Better than every guidebook! Put together! You must have been planning this for—” she paused, her gaze soft on Tara’s smiling face, “Years. You’ve been planning this for years.”


And you were going to give it all up for me.


“I wouldn’t be going without you,” Tara replied in a tone that didn’t mean either ‘because of your help’ or ‘without your presence’; she meant both. They’d needed each other to pull this experience of a lifetime off.


“So do we do it?” Willow asked, pupils wide and breath starting to come in light pants, “Do we book the tickets? I mean, you always planned to go in June…I know you were looking at delaying when you were working out the money stuff, but that’s not an issue any longer. It’s soon but why wait?”


Tara squeezed Willow’s hand tighter under the table.


“Leap of faith.”


Willow desperately wanted to give Tara a smooch then and there, and almost did, but chickened out at the last second. Instead, she turned to take her laptop out of its pouch and opened it on the table. She shoved a potato skin into her mouth while she waited for it to boot and to sign-in to the free WiFi before pulling up a whole folder of bookmarks. This is where her research would triumph.


“So I’ve been looking up the best types of tickets to buy and I definitely think we should get the most flexible ones, especially after seeing your…” she paused and smiled at Tara, “Our plans.”


A couple of hours, several refills, a surprisingly tasty share plate of pulled pork nachos and almost an entire canister of napkins later, Willow clicked the ‘purchase’ button and they both held their breath for the few seconds it took for the confirmation screen to pop up.


They both stared in stunned silence, then turned to each other at the same time and laughed loudly, disturbing the still lonely old patron sitting at the bar, but he just grumbled and ignored them.


“We’re going!” Willow exclaimed.


“We’re going,” Tara giggled, “I can’t believe it’s really happening.”


They hugged for a few seconds and separated a little awkwardly but still smiling from ear to ear. Tara’s phone buzzed with an alarm and she was genuinely surprised to see so much time had passed.


She scooted out and started to pack her binder away in her backpack.


“I have to go, I’m working a shift. Guess I can tell them I won’t be taking many more,” she said giddily, “See you later, travel buddy.”


She kissed Willow’s cheek and waggled her fingers in a wave.


“See you later, travel buddy,” Willow returned in a dreamy tone.


She waved back and watched Tara leave, biting her bottom lip lightly.


It really was happening and she had taken a major step forward, the biggest one.


Well, second biggest after actually making the decision to go.


She had a small but needily expedient list to take care of; vaccines, visas, insurance, but she knew what she had to do and was already prepped to make the appointments.


This was thrilling, even this part, the administration of it all. She couldn’t imagine what it would feel like when they stepped on, and then off, the plane.


To only know the direction she was going and to be making all the real decisions as they went…whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, at will. It was so different from how her entire life had been. There was always a practical end goal; her mother had graded her kindergarten drawings in comparison with others of her age group for god’s sake.


Now the end goal was love and life and happiness.


She felt a little nauseous.


Was this thrilling? Maybe it was terrifying. Maybe those two things were connected.


Either way, she couldn’t wait.


She packed up and went up to the bar to pay. While waiting for her card to go through, the drunk guy was peering at her.


“Wanda?”


Willow didn’t look up right away until he grunted. She glanced in his direction but he wasn’t exactly pleasant to look at.


“Are you talking to me?”


“Wanda, right?” he asked gruffly, “Wendy?”


“Willow,” Willow replied, guardedly, “I’m sorry, do I—”


She suddenly inhaled sharply, paling.


“Mr. Harris,” she squeaked, finally recognizing him, though it had been a couple of years and a lot less rough stubble since the last time.


“Willow,” Mr. Harris said with more than a little skeevy undertone, “You doing my boy?”


Willow did what could only be described as a quadruple-take.


“God, no,” she spat like she could taste the words on her tongue. “No, no, we’re not. No.”


Mr. Harris grumbled into his beer.


“Should be. Don’t like that new one. Not a’ bit a’ finesse y’know?”


Willow’s eyes bore into the bartender, willing him to work faster.


“Well, um, I think he likes her, so…” she said, gulping as her eyes flicked toward him nervously, “You, um, you’ve been here all day?”


How much have you heard?


Mr. Harris leaned threateningly in her direction.


“You implying something little girl?”


“Nope!” Willow replied swiftly, “I never imply, you must have inferred, incorrectly, of course, not your fault. I gotta go now before they kick me out, no minors after 6! Thanks! Bye!”


She tore her card right out of the machine when it flashed green and ran out, turning the corner to make sure she was out of sight. She kicked her heel back against the wall.


“Dammit.”

Chapter Text


May
(Part 3)


So I'm Trying To Put It Right
'Cause I Want To Love You With My Heart
All This Trying Has Made Me Tight
And I Don't Know Even Where To Start

Maybe That's A Start


“Willow!”

 

Willow spotted Buffy waving at her and excused herself from her parents to run over. When she caught up with Buffy, they both grabbed onto each other’s arms and started squealing.

 

“We did it, we’re actually graduating!” Buffy exclaimed, “Does my butt look big in this?”

 

She turned in her robes, making Willow giggle.

 

“Don’t want none unless you got buns, hun,” she tried to say seriously but couldn’t, then blushed and waved politely when she noticed they weren’t alone, “Hi, Mrs. Summers. Where’s Dawn?”

 

“Hello, Willow, congratulations,” Joyce replied softly, “She’s having a day out with her friends.”

 

“Whined jealously that I was getting an ounce of attention,” Buffy added through gritted teeth.

 

Joyce shot her a look, then folded into a smile.

 

“Oh, I see your parents, Willow. I’ll go say hello.”

 

Buffy linked arms with Willow and pointed across the grass.

 

“Look, there’s Xander.”

 

They walked over together and Willow became nervous as she saw his parents standing behind him.

 

“Will, Buff,” he greeted through gritted teeth as his parents threw daggers at each other, “Please tell me there’s somewhere you need to take me.”

 

Mr. Harris smirked at Willow.

 

“Your travel buddy here?”

 

Buffy’s brow slowly creased.

 

“Travel buddy?”

 

“Could I talk to you guys alone for a moment?” Willow said quickly, her voice rising a tad.

 

She dragged them away from the parents and students congregating around the seating area.

 

“Thanks for saving me, Will,” Xander replied with an appreciative smile, “It’s not nice being the buffer for eye-knives.”

 

Willow held her hands in front of her anxiously.

 

“I really do have to talk to you.”

 

She glanced between her two friends earnest faces and slowly exhaled.

 

“I’ve…I’ve decided to defer college for a year.”

 

Buffy’s eyes bugged.

 

“You’ve what?”

 

“Wait, what does defer mean?” Xander asked a furrow in his brow.

 

“I’m delaying it. I’ll go next year instead of this year,” Willow explained quickly.

 

A silence lingered, while Buffy and Xander shared a look.

 

“Are you… sick?” Buffy posited eyebrows scrunched unsurely.

 

“No, no,” Willow laughed lightly, “No, it’s a good thing. I’m going traveling, with Tara. We have the most amazing plans and—”

 

“You’re skipping college to become a backpacker?” Buffy interrupted, accusatory.

 

Willow frowned.

 

“That’s…over simplistic…but….”

 

Buffy held her hands up.

 

“Who are you and what have you done with my best friend?”

 

“This is very not-Willow, Willow,” Xander added, confused, “But it also sounds very, very cool.”

 

“Maybe I want to be something else,” Willow replied simply, “Someone not-Willow. Or…more-Willow, actually.”

 

Buffy shook her head back and forth.

 

“So overnight you’ve just suddenly decided to throw away all of your life plans just for her?”

 

“‘Just for’—” Willow started with a defensive inhalation of breath, “Is this about Tara and I being together?”

 

Xander’s eyes started to narrow.

 

“Are you guys doing some tricky thing to cut me out ag—” he started, then swung around to fully face Willow, “Wait — together-together?”

 

Willow watched the concern disguised as anger fill Buffy’s face and she slowly let out the anger she’d felt bunching in her own shoulders.

 

“I get it. You’re worried because…love makes you do the wacky.”

 

“Love?” Xander questioned, but neither girl reacted to him.

 

“That's the truth,” Buffy exhaled, folding her arms lightly over her chest.

 

Willow reached out and held onto the flowy arm of Buffy’s robe.

 

“But this isn’t that,” she insisted softly, “This is for me. I did it all without even telling her. This is me taking on board my own mind — my own happiness. I’ve sacrificed it for too long and I didn’t even realize.”

 

She took a step toward Buffy, smiling emotionally.

 

“You were one of the first people to recognize something in me. Becoming your friend was like the first domino in me becoming a real, happy Willow.”

 

The same smile started to bloom on Buffy’s face and she yanked Willow into a hug.

 

Xander watched them, eyes wide and threw his hands up.

 

Together-together?!”

 

Both girls broke apart with a laugh and Willow turned to Xander, grinning.

 

“And you. Your loyalty, your kindness, you’ve shown me what a true friend is. The kind of friend I want to be to you both, wherever I am,” she said sincerely, before wiping at her eye, “And yes, Tara and I are together. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but this has been…a very big year.”

 

Xander stood there, stunned.

 

“My dad said he saw you with a girl and you were all with the get-a-roominess! I thought he was just drunk.”

 

“He was,” Willow reasoned, through a smile, “But he was also right.”

 

Xander slowly took it in and could only offer a signature goofy smile for his oldest friend.

 

“She was those feelings you were trying to work out, huh?” he asked, opening his arms and enveloping her in a hug, “I can’t blame you. She’s very pretty. I hubba-hubba’d when I saw her across the street one time.”

 

Willow had to choose her reaction to that very quickly and decided to go with the giggle. She laughed into his chest and pulled away just long enough to tug Buffy into the hug.

 

“You guys have been the best friends I could ever ask for. And just because we’re going in different directions doesn’t mean we’re on different paths,” she said, huddling as close as she could to them both, “I have no intention of losing my two best buds ever again.”

 

Xander used his strength to keep them locked together.

 

“We won’t lose you either, Wills.”

 

“I can text you anywhere in a few seconds,” Buffy added, “It’s not visiting from college…but I’ll take a coll-ege of pictures.”

 

Willow was smiling so much she didn’t even bother to correct her. She wiped at her eyes again, feeling a release of her worries, though there was still one in the back of her mind as she looked around the area.

 

“Well now that we’re all suitably reassured…” she said, taking in a long breath, “Let’s go blow this joint!”



“Excuse me, sorry, yep, woo hoo we did it, sorry, thank you, excuse me.”


Willow weaved through the crowd of proud parents after leaving the rest of her cheering class, trying not to trip over the ends of the robe.


Unfortunately, she came upon a pair of parents she couldn’t avoid: her own.


“Well done, my darling,” Ira gushed, pulling his daughter into a hug.


“Yes, well done, sweetheart,” Sheila replied, as close to sincere as she’d ever been, “We are very proud of you.”


Willow smiled softly.


“Thank you, really, um could you hold this for me?”


She shoved her diploma into her mother’s hands and tried to move past them, but Ira held onto her shoulder.


“You’ll notice we haven’t given you your present yet,” he said, a wicked smirk playing on his lips, “That’s because we thought you might like to use it right away.”


“Can I get back to you in just a—” Willow started, but Ira insisted on reaching into his pocket to retrieve a pair of car keys with a bow pressed on top.


He handed them to her, but Willow just looked at them in her hand, confused.


“Press the button,” Sheila encouraged.


Willow pressed it and a red Volvo sitting in the nearest parking space lit up. Willow did it again as she processed what was happening.


“That’s….that’s a car!”


“It sure is, sweetheart,” Ira boasted proudly, “It’s all yours.”


Willow was stunned into silence.


“Wow,” she replied, face tensing slightly as she thought of what this meant and would mean when she told them everything, “Wow. Thank you, I…thank you.”


She gave each of them a sincere hug, but her face scrunched when she saw something over their shoulders.


“Really, um, thank you! I um,” she waved the keys with a nervous chuckle, “I gotta go show it off! Amazing! Thank you so much! Thank you!”


She lifted the ends of the gown so she wouldn’t trip and ran across the grass to the back row of seats, where Tara was wearing a beautiful maroon cocktail dress, sleeveless with a halter neck and showing off every curve she had. A yellow sash was tied on her waist into a bow sitting on her hip.


This look did not help Willow in the tripping over herself department and she had to grab onto Tara’s arms to stay upright.


“Hi. You’re here.”


Tara greeted her with a smile.


“I’m so sorry I was late,” she said softly, “Our car broke down, I had to run. I saw you cross the stage, you did great.”


Willow noticed Tara’s hair ever-so-slightly out of place against her forehead and it just made her all the more attractive.


“No explosions of embarrassment,” she nodded, but started to frown, “Why were you sneaking off?”


Tara shrugged a shoulder bashfully.


“I figured you’d want to hang out with your friends.”


Willow glanced back over her shoulder and back to Tara with a smile.


“Come hang out with us.”


Tara’s eyes shone happily.


“Are you sure?”


Willow offered her hand, which Tara took with a beaming smile. Halfway back to her friends, she felt the bulge in her other hand and glanced at Tara.


“My parents gave me a car.”


“I’m sorry?” Tara asked, mouth dropping in surprise.


“I know,” Willow replied, shooting her a tense look, “That’s a later problem.”


She brought Tara to her group of friends and showed her off excitedly.


“Everyone, this is Tara. Um, you know Buffy and this is Xander and um—”


Anya placed her hands on Xander’s shoulders, hanging out of him.


“Anya. I’m sleeping with Xander.”


Everyone looked away awkwardly and Tara’s cheeks blushed.


“O-Oh, okay. Um. Nice to meet you,” she said, quickly moving eye contact, “And congratulations to all of you.”


Xander eyed her appreciatively.


“Hubba hubba,” he said again, which resulted in both Anya and Willow’s arms from opposite sides smacking against his torso, “I mean I like your dress. You’re in SHS colors. Go Razorbacks!”


Tara’s blush only grew.


“It was the only one I could find in the right color.”


“Did you add the bow yourself?” Buffy asked in a complimentary tone, “Good eye.”


“Great eye,” Willow replied, pressing herself into Tara’s side for a moment to take advantage of those curves on display.


Anya watched how Willow’s eyes diverted to Tara’s breasts.


“Oh, you’re Willow’s org—”


“Tara and I have known each other since we were kids,” Willow interrupted, straightening up and telling herself to pull it together. Some people knowing didn’t mean she wanted everybody knowing.


Anya looked between then all suspiciously.


“Then why haven’t you all met before?”


“I’ve met Tara,” Buffy offered with a smile.


“I think I bumped into you in second grade once,” Xander said with an awkward smile, “Maybe that’s why Willow said I couldn’t ask you to dance at her Bat Mitzvah. Too clumsy.”


“That was to protect her toes from annihilation,” Willow butted it, muttering under her breath.


“I went to a different high school,” Tara explained to Anya.


They all lapsed into silence and Anya gave them odd looks.


“You’re all weird,” she said, then lifted a chain around her neck from under her gown and held it up for them to see, “Look what Xander bought me.”


“It’s very pretty,” Tara said, making a point of admiring it, “Oh I made you all these.”


She produced a Tupperware from her purse and opened it.


“Graduation cookies!” Xander said excitedly, taking the first one out, a cap, “Tastes much better than the real thing.”


Tara smiled gratefully and handed the rest of them out.


“Thank you, they’re great,” Willow said to her.


Tara turned to her and lowered her voice.


“I have something for you, but I don’t have to give it to you now.”


“It’s okay,” Willow replied softly, “You can show me.”


Tara lifted Willow’s arm up and rolled back the fabric of the gown to expose Willow’s wrist. She smiled at Willow’s bracelet, the one with the half-heart charm that matched her own. The one she should have anticipated being there because Willow never took it off.


Neither did Tara.


She took it off of Willow’s wrist and Willow watched as Tara retrieved something from her purse. She recognized the face of her Apple watch she’d bought with birthday money that had gone missing a week before.


“Hey! I thought I lost that!”


“I stole it,” Tara admitted, then held it out with the strap flat either side, “But just to make you a better strap. You said the original made you sweat and left weird red marks on your wrist.”


Willow looked back down at the new strap; lightweight nylon in a bright but demure blue; Willow's favorite color. The color of the sky on the sunniest day and the exact hue of Tara’s eyes, though Tara had never figured out the last part.


“I love it. It’s so thoughtful,” Willow said softly, thievery completely forgotten.


Tara turned it over and Willow saw the other side was perforated leather that she could already tell would be smooth and cool against her skin. It was a light brown, almost fawn color and had a discreet etching indented in it — a globe.


“You are my whole world,” Tara said quietly, thankful for the bustle around them shielding their conversation, “And I can’t wait to discover more of it with you.”


Willow wished she’d asked Tara to wait to give her gift now because all she wanted to do was kiss her. She’d always thought those kinds of clichés were corny, but she’d discovered that was only because she’d never heard them come from Tara’s mouth.


After the watch was strapped on, as cool and smooth as Willow anticipated, she gathered Tara in a hug and pressed a flash of a kiss to the corner of her mouth as their cheeks brushed.


Anya watched them out of the corner of her eye. Her gift to them was not disrupting them.


Tara was overcome by Willow’s openness and returned the hug softly.


“I love you,” she whispered in Willow’s ear as they parted.


“I,” Willow started, then pressed a hand to Tara’s cheek for a fleeting moment before letting it fall, “Can I have my bracelet back now? I miss it.”


Tara nodded softly, understanding. She pushed Willow’s bracelet back onto her wrist, the charm bouncing in place as it secured its rightful position, holding court where Willow’s heartbeat could be felt through her pulse.


Buffy jogged back over to them, though neither Willow nor Tara had even seen her leave. She indicated over her shoulder.


“The parents are summoning us all to get lunch.”


“A-all of us?” Willow asked nervously, “Well, um…who wants to ride in my new car?”


There was a round of surprised exclamations about a new car before Xander started to run forward.


“I call shotgun!”


They all slid into the brand new car and Willow spent a few minutes having fun figuring out all the buttons and functions. Tara, ever the bastion of politeness, got stuck in the middle in the back between Buffy and Anya. Buffy was busy singing along with the radio channel and Anya caught Tara’s eye and smiled.


“You seem pleasant and non-threatening to my relationship. Do you want to be friends?”


Tara blinked several times.


“I-I’d love to be friends,” she answered kindly, though with an accompanying face scrunch, “I am leaving soon though.”


Anya shrugged.


“Do you have a phone?”


Tara exchanged phone numbers with Anya whilst Willow yelled at Xander to get his feet off the dash. When they got to the restaurant the parents had picked out, Willow hurried everyone out so she could get in there and run interference between her parents and Xander’s father.


They all threw their caps and gowns in the trunk and went inside.


Willow had to keep her eye on Mr. Harris the whole time, through the speeches and toasts she barely heard and the dinner she barely ate.


After dessert, she passed by Tara and Anya sitting together and Anya had a confused look on her face.


“But I thought men liked it when we complimented their penis size.”


“I-I believe that’s the case, just not in public,” Tara answered, and Willow had so many questions with answers she never wanted to hear but Mr. Harris was at the bar and Ira was sitting near the bar and she had to go and engage her father in conversation stat lest the two men pick one up.


By the time she and her parents were finally home, she was exhausted just from trying to keep them apart.


She started to thank her parents again for dinner and their generous gift but Ira cut her off as he opened the mail he’d picked up on the way in.


“Why did the insurance company send a letter to confirm your removal from our travel insurance?”


Shit.


Willow reached behind to massage her neck. Running around all day had been for nothing.


Guess I’m doing this.


“I got my own plan,” she answered honestly.


Sheila went across the foyer to read the letter.


“Why on earth?” Ira asked, dumbfounded.


Willow gulped.


“Because I’m going on a trip.”


Ira continued to gape at her.


“Wherever you’re going, our plan would still cover you, probably more comprehensively. Why would you not check this with me?”


“I needed some specialized cover…longer term,” Willow replied evenly, then added on under her breath, “And I didn’t know if you’d still be willing to cover me after this conversation.”


Sheila looked up suspiciously.


“What do you mean ‘longer term’?”


Willow sighed deeply.


“Sit down.”


“Willow—” Ira started, but Willow cut him off.


“Trust me. Sit down.”


They walked into the living room, turned the light on and Willow sat opposite her parents. She took in a deep breath and told them of her plans and her reasoning while they sat in stony silence.


Finally, Sheila broke, a shake of her head that included her whole body and culminated in an eye roll.


“You most definitely are not going off on some flight of fancy instead of college,” Sheila scoffed, “How do you propose you pay for it? Did you think WE would?”


“No, I didn’t,” Willow replied calmly, “I have my own savings and I have other access to funds too.”


Sheila’s eyes narrowed.


“If you think you’re going to use your trust fund for this young lady…”


“I already took it,” Willow replied, her heart hammering but her tone remaining even, “I didn’t need it co-signed once I reached my 18th birthday.”


Sheila stood up, furious.


“Only if you went to college. Your grandparents intended that for your education!”


“The rules were I got a quarter of it when I accepted a college place and one eighth upon successful completion of each year and the last quarter if I graduated with honors, or else my 25th birthday if I didn’t,” Willow replied, responding to her mother’s raised voice by raising her own, “I got accepted into college. I’m still going to college. I still plan to graduate with honors. Just a year later.”


Ira looked up at Willow, wounded.


“How long have you been planning this?”


Willow didn’t want to be the source of that look in her father’s eye, but what he’d never understand was that not doing this would make her eyes sink the same way.


“Longer than I even realized.”


“And not a word,” Ira said, almost with disgust, “Sneaking around behind our backs.”


“You’re barely here to sneak around behind!” Willow retorted, groaning at herself for letting herself be pulled in like this.


“Don’t you raise your voice at your father,” Sheila said, irate, “You had no business accessing that money using a technicality.”


Willow’s jaw clenched and she made herself speak slowly.


“I’m not stupid, okay? I’m not going to party around the world and blow hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve put tuition away into a deposit account that I can’t access for a year and that’s not even taking into account the scholarship they gave me so I’ll have extra living expenses. Plus I have a secondary savings account with another lump sum and I have a reasonable budget set out for the trip. Tara has a modest—”


“That family, I knew we should never have befriended a single mother,” Sheila spat, “Look at the kind of irresponsible children she produced! Encouraging her to make this feckless, irresponsible decision!”


“Sheila,” Ira interjected, holding his head in his hands.


“She’s been more of a mother to me than you ever were,” Willow said, her voice now low and palpating with anger that she tried to swallow, “And maybe that’s why I’m making this ‘feckless, irresponsible’ decision. Or maybe for once in my life I’m choosing to recognize my own happiness. I’ll let you contemplate that.”


She turned to leave but Sheila wasn’t done.


“This isn’t over, Willow Danielle.”


Willow turned back.


“Yeah, it is,” she said, letting her shoulders relax as she really took that in herself, “It’s over. I’m going. I couldn’t even go to school this year if I wanted to, I’ve officially deferred. The ticket is bought. The only choice now is to go or sit around for a year. I know what I’ll be doing.”


She smiled, not to provoke, but just because she knew truly now that this was the decision to bring her happiness.


“So you can accept it…I don’t really care if you like it or not… you can accept it or not, but I’m going.”


She went to leave again but turned back in the doorway.


“And for what it’s worth, I’d like if our relationship — our family — was not something I have to leave behind. I know it’s a shock but I’m an adult and this is what I’ve decided.”


She did leave then, heading for the stairs to her bedroom.


“An adult! You’re a child making a childish decision!” Sheila called after her, “Don’t think you’re keeping that car!”


“Oh, Sheila for god’s sake,” Ira said in annoyance, “It’s already in her name.”


Sheila spun around, eyes wide.


“You put the title in her name?”


“I thought I was doing her a favor, giving her the responsibility of ownership—” Ira protested.


Sheila perched on the edge of a chair.


“Oh Ira, she’s a child!”


“She’s not a child, that was the whole point!” Ira replied gruffly, “It was supposed to be an acknowledgment.”


“She’s making a childish decision,” Sheila repeated, her whole demeanor changing as she tried to revert to her more controlling professionalism, “I knew I should have been concerned about her delayed—”


Ira held up a hand.


“Delayed or not, she’s asserting her independence and maybe for once I won’t be so arrogant as to think it’s just to spite us,” he said, replaying everything Willow had said over and over again on a loop, “She has made her decision, as much as I do not like it.”


He huffed.


“So, just…take a breath.”


He stood and begun to stride over to the cabinet.


“Or a whiskey.”



Willow woke up to a repetitive beeping from the front of the house.


She rubbed her eyes and wandered to the window where she saw a tow truck was trying to align with her new car. She sighed.


“Yep, that sounds about right.”


She hurried to her nightstand and grabbed the set of keys she’d purposefully hidden the night before when she’d heard her father say the car was in her name.


She wouldn’t have argued if they’d taken it back, but if it was hers, it was hers.


And maybe she felt a little bit entitled after all of the years of crap she’d put up with.


She ran outside in her pajamas just as the driver was getting out of the truck.


“I’m moving it off the property,” she said, using her keys to electronically open the door.


The driver stood on the spot dumbly.


“Uhh…”


“I’m moving it!” Willow repeated, sliding into the driver’s seat and turning the engine on.


She was completely boxed in between the house and the truck, so she rolled the window down and stuck her head out.


“Can you move please?”


The driver looked a little scared, which told Willow her mom was watching. She glanced behind and confirmed Sheila was in the doorway, smirking and nodding for the driver to go ahead.


Willow looked ahead, steely.


“Joke’s on you, Mom!” she said to herself under her breath, “I got 103% in Driver’s Ed and the three percent was extra credit for parallel parking better than the instructor.”


The race was on to get out of that spot before she was hooked and as she looked in her mirrors, she saw they’d been pushed in.


“Wow, real mature,” she muttered and she pushed the driver’s side one out and looked through it to check her angle.


It wasn’t The Fast and The Furious but sweat broke out on her brow as she watched the driver hike out his equipment. Finally, knuckles white on the wheel, she got her break and lurched forward, swung around the tow truck and onto the street.


“Victory!” she cackled, lifting a fist triumphantly.


The driver was just staring at her in shock and Sheila scowled from the doorway. Willow sat in the middle of the street for a moment, wondering what she was going to do, then turned and drove up Tara’s empty driveway.


Satisfied, she jumped back out and locked the doors, looking as smug as one could look in a SpongeBob t-shirt.


Sheila marched out to talk to the tow driver, but couldn’t resist calling over to Willow.


“I’ve canceled your insurance, so I wouldn’t be so quick to drive illegally next time.”


Willow just rolled her eyes. She stood around wondering what to do next when the Maclay door opened and Tara’s sleepy head popped out.


Willow straightened up sheepishly.


“Can I come in?”


Tara opened the door fully and Willow walked in, hopping from one foot to the other as her bare soles took the brunt of the hot ground.


“They know,” she said to Tara glumly once inside, “And we’ve moved into the passive-aggressive stage of grief.”


Tara closed the door and brought Willow into the living room, sitting on the couch and holding a cushion to her chest.


“What’s going on?”


Willow dropped into the seat beside Tara, who whipped off her socks and handed them over so Willow could cover her dirty feet. Willow smiled gratefully and pulled them on so she could swing her legs up.


“She can’t take the car back because it’s in my name, so she’s doing everything else in her power to make me suffer. I knew it was a good idea to sneak most of my stuff out. She’d probably try to plant something to get me arrested at the airport.”


“Oh honey, is it that bad?” Tara asked face scrunched.


Willow reached out and brushed some tousled hair from Tara’s face.


“You look really sexy when you’re sleepy.”


She leaned in and pressed her mouth to Tara’s, and felt herself fill with warmth when Tara’s smile spread out against her lips. She started to pull Tara’s bottom lip into her mouth when she heard Kimberly’s voice float out loudly from the hallway.


“Good morning!”


Willow shot back, casting her eyes toward the door and sighing in relief when she thought Kimberly hadn’t noticed.


“I thought your mom was at work,” she whispered, “There’s no car.”


Tara cleared her throat, glancing away guiltily.


“Um, it broke down, it’s in the garage,” she explained.


“Oh yeah, you said that yesterday,” Willow replied, bringing her knees up to her chest, “Is it okay?”


“The mechanic said it’s cooked unless they replace the engine,” Tara answered, folding her legs out to stand, “Do you want some juice?”


Willow nodded and Tara moved to go into the kitchen, where her mother was making coffee.


“Good morning,” Kimberly repeated, an ever-so-slight amused curl on her lips.


Tara blushed as she took down two glasses.


“Um, Willow told her parents about the trip and they’re…reacting. If she needs to stay…?”


Kimberly nodded softly.


“Yes, of course.”


Tara filled the glasses with orange juice and headed back out of the kitchen, smiling at her mother along the way.


“Thanks, mom.”


Tara brought the juice back to the living room and handed Willow a glass before resuming her seat beside her.


Willow sipped on her juice and sighed.


“Do you think I should give it back?”


Tara sat cross-legged and rested her chin on her fist.


“Well, they gave it to you for graduating high school and maybe for going to college. You’re still doing that, so I don’t think it’s ‘unearned’. But…you won’t use it while we’re gone.”


Willow nodded.


“That’s true. I don’t even have anywhere to put it,” she said, then looked at Tara with a whine, “But it’s a brand new car and it’s mine and I want it.”


Tara smiled at the adorable pout.


“I think you’ve become pretty good at knowing what’s the right thing to do for you. Trust yourself. I do.”


She brushed her hand on Willow’s thigh, who smiled at the delicate maneuver and accompanying words.


“Thanks. Without you believing in me…I’d never have believed in myself.”


She covered Tara’s hand, then covered her own belly as it rumbled.


“Do you want to order some breakfast?”


“Let’s make some,” Tara suggested with a flirtatious jolt of her eyebrows.


“I make amazing Pop-Tarts,” Willow offered with a wide grin.


Tara mused it over.


“How about pancakes?”


Willow’s eyes lit up, then momentarily glowered.


“Is Donny here too?”


Tara shook her head.


“He has another 30 days in the program. He’s not coming home for good until after we’ve gone.”


Willow seemed relieved.


“Good. I have permanent indentations on my hand from being stabbed with a fork trying to eat around him,” she said, pushing her hand out for inspection, “Look!”


Tara closed her hand around Willow’s fist and gently lowered it. She leaned in so their faces were close.


“I’m very sorry. Is there any way I can make it up to you?”


Willow felt Tara’s breath on her lips and didn’t even try to look away uncomfortably, instead just continuing to grin.


“Funny shapes.”


Tara giggled, briefly nuzzled her cheek against Willow’s and stood up. Willow followed her into the kitchen and did hang back a bit while Kimberly was there drinking her coffee.


“We’re making pancakes,” she explained, smiling softly as Tara reached for a mixing bowl, “Funny shapes.”


“Sounds delicious,” Kimberly replied and after glancing back and forth between the space Willow was putting between them, she kindly played the oblivious card, “You know, I think I might just take this coffee back up to bed and savor my last morning before 6 am bus rides.”


She slid out of the kitchen chair, mug in hand and walked out of the kitchen, closing the door behind her. When it clicked shut, Willow embraced Tara from behind, resting her cheek on Tara’s shoulder.


“What do you need?”


“Eggs and milk, please,” Tara replied as she measured out some flour.


Willow went to the fridge and took out the carton of eggs and jug of milk. She cracked two eggs into the bowl and Tara mixed them together. Willow smiled; it had been a while since they’d done this but it used to be a weekly event when they had sleepovers at Tara’s house. They made them with Kimberly until they were about 13 and then by themselves.


They would have been allowed to do it unsupervised earlier if it weren’t for an ill-advised but extremely fun egg fight when they were 10. It was a hot summer’s day and it caked into their hair and it was not pretty. But very, very fun.


“I miss doing stuff like this with you.”


Tara pursed her lips and considered her words.


“We’ve been cooped up in our bedrooms a lot.”


Willow was silent for a moment, then grinned again.


“Not for long!”


“Not for long,” Tara smiled in agreement, “Turn the burner on for me?”


Willow prepped the skillet and Tara finished off the batter and brought it over.


They laughed together making funny and sometimes completely indistinguishable shapes.


“You have not lost your touch,” Willow complimented as she finished off her stack with a rhombus she was particularly proud of, “Best pancakes there is.”


“Wait until we taste the crepes in Paris,” Tara replied, eyes shining with excitement, “Or the blinis in Prague.”


“I have my very own pancake guide!” Willow giggled, then covered her mouth and leaned back, “Oh. Too much.”


Tara scooted her chair closer.


“Want me to rub your tummy?”


Willow nodded shyly and Tara put her hand over Willow’s t-shirt, rubbing where SpongeBob’s face was.


A minute or two later, Kimberly made a noisy spectacle of coming downstairs and into the kitchen, so Tara had pulled back before her mother ever reached the door.


She brought their plates to the dishwasher and loaded them up while Kimberly apologized and refilled her coffee.


“What are you girls up to today?”


“Jammie day?” Tara suggested, with a knowing grin in Willow’s direction, “You even came prepared.”


Willow nodded keenly. They hadn’t done that in a long time either.


“Can we watch all our favorites?”


“You bet,” Tara agreed, “Start with The Little Mermaid and work our way through the years.”


(With multiple shared grins during ‘Kiss The Girl’)

Willow clapped her hands and hurried out of the room.


“I’ll get pillows for a fort!”


Tara smiled, watching her go.


“I’m sorry, do you mind us taking over the living room?”


Kimberly shook her head.


“I’m glad to see her a little more relaxed. Especially considering she apparently had to flee here in her pajamas this morning.”


“She’s getting there,” Tara replied, nodding her head, “I don’t push. Patience.”


She smiled softly and pushed off the counter.


“We left you a plate of pancakes under the aluminum foil.”


She went into the living room and kneeled in front of the TV, loading up the VHS player that they kept around for only this purpose; so they could watch the old videos they’d done as children.


Willow ran in with pillows and blankets from Tara’s room concealing her almost entirely and tripped over the couch and onto the floor. Thankfully, being wrapped entirely in bedding, she didn’t feel a thing.


“I’m okay!” she shouted, twisted herself out and jumped up.


She started to build up the pillows until they were suitably high enough to fix the blankets over.


“Your best work yet,” Tara complimented as she crawled underneath.


Willow joined her.


“My understanding of math and angles has improved considerably since the last time I built one.”


“You always understood math,” Tara retorted playfully.


“Yes, but now I understand it considerably better,” Willow replied, giggling, “And not even any Donny here to kick it down.”


“Definitely an improvement,” Tara replied with a crooked smile.


They watched a very fuzzy version of The Little Mermaid, both singing along unselfconsciously.


Kimberly stood in the doorway and felt more than a little nostalgia. She could only see the tops of their hair and they could easily have been four years old again. She had to swallow a lump that formed in her throat and leave them to it before she burst into tears.


She’d been happy and relieved when Tara had told her she’d gotten the resources to make her trip and surprised that Willow was going with her (if not additionally relieved she’d have someone there if needed). But now she really had to face the fact that they’d be gone soon.


She sat down at the kitchen table and took out her phone.


She wondered what were these dating apps all the kids were talking about?


Time passed and she heard the television turn off, then Tara going upstairs to the bathroom. Moments later, Willow came into the kitchen and approached her.


“Ms. Maclay, can I talk to you?”


Kimberly set her phone down.


“Of course, honey. Is everything okay?”


Willow nodded and sat beside her.


“Well, um…”


She blushed.


“Sorry, I didn’t prepare anything to say properly. I just, um, wanted to say ‘thanks’, I guess, though now I say it, it doesn’t sound anywhere near enough.”


Kimberly frowned in concern, but let Willow speak.


“You’ve always been like a parent to me…the real kind who looked out for me and fed me and…put me in my place when I needed it.”


Kimberly started to smile, which made Willow smile too.


“My parents shoved money at me and they’re probably spinning right now that it’s allowed me to make this choice I’m making,” she said, scratching the back of her neck, “They also gave me a pretty sweet graduation gift. It’s kinda sitting in your driveway right now because my mother tried to have it towed lest I feel some actual enjoyment from it.”


“Oh,” Kimberly replied in surprise, she hadn’t ventured outside yet, “Well, it’s a big shock, Willow. I’ve known Tara’s plan for years and…even with the hiccup, now I know it’s happening I’m still a bit stunned. I won’t see her for a year. Or you either. It’s a lot.”


Willow shook her head sadly.


“I haven’t ‘seen’ them for more than a fleeting moment in years. It’s like when they travel for their reasons I’m supposed to raise myself, but once I’ve done it and decided I’m going for my reasons it’s a big hullaballoo.”


She stopped, determined not to let her emotions get the better of her.


“Anyway, the car. I wasn’t sure what to do. But I decided to keep it,” she continued with a resolute smile, “And I was hoping I could keep it in your driveway while we’re gone.”


Kimberly paused.


“Oh, um—”


“And, y’know, it’d be great if you could keep it busy for me,” Willow cut her off, looking her in the eye, “You know, stop it from rusting up and such. I mean, otherwise, it would just be sitting there. Doing nothing. I’d be happy to know it was…taken care of.”


Kimberly inhaled softly as she realized what Willow was doing. She covered Willow’s hand with her own and had to fight off that lump once again.


“Yes, of course, I’ll do that for you sweetheart,” she said, just about holding back the quiver in her voice.


“Thank you so much!” Willow gushed, throwing herself into Kimberly for a hug.


She pulled back sheepishly after a moment.


“Um, we can figure out insurance details and stuff if you want.”


Kimberly nodded stoically.


“Good idea.”


She stood up and walked out and Willow saw her swipe at her eyes as she went off to find her documents.


From the doorway, Tara appeared and mouthed ‘thank you’.


“She really is doing me a favor,” Willow replied softly, “And this works for everyone. There’s no one I trust more than a Maclay. Woman. Maclay woman. It’s another worry off my chest.”


She smiled happily.


“Now all we have left to do is count down the days.”

Chapter Text


June


Come on, Come On, The World Will Follow After


Tara was sitting on the couch, sifting through her travel documents and sorting them into a plastic folder.


“Do you have all your visa information?”


Tara looked up at her mother walked in and sat beside her.


“Don’t need one for New Zealand or Australia and the other ones are all available online. Willow’s already applied for some for us already.”


Kimberly put an arm around Tara’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze.


“I can’t believe you’re really off tomorrow. I’m going to miss you so much. Can you Skype your old mother between adventures?”


“Of course, Mom,” Tara replied, smiling, “Thanks again for getting us the nice hotel room for when we arrive…I don’t think Willow has fully wrapped her head around the idea of a hostel yet.”


“Well now is the time for new experiences,” Kimberly mused with a returning smile, “The least I can do, considering everything.”


Tara leaned her head on her mother’s shoulder.


“It all worked out…I’m going…Willow is coming with me… Donny is getting the help he needs…it’s okay.”


Kimberly brought her other arm around and held Tara against her. She kissed the top of her daughter’s head and held her for a precious few moments; moments she’d miss.


“Where is Willow? I feel like I haven’t seen her in a week,” Kimberly asked when Tara pulled away to continue packing her documents.


“She’s been staying with her friends, saying goodbye,” Tara replied, quickly tucking her hair behind her ear to stop it flying in front of her eyes, “She doesn’t want to lose them again.”


“Again?” Kimberly asked, raising an eyebrow.


“It’s been a rough year for everyone,” Tara sighed, then smiled to herself, “And the best one too.”


Kimberly pretended not to hear and leaned back, arms folded lightly on her chest.


“Still…frosty across the street?”


Tara lifted her hand and shook it in a ‘so-so’ motion.


“Her mother is preaching to her about the best way to spin this on her résumé, but Willow says that’s better than literally running her out of the driveway. She said her dad looks sad but is hugging her more than when she was studying for her Bat Mitzvah. He told her she did the right thing lending you the car.”


“I’m glad she’s not leaving totally estranged,” Kimberly replied with relief in her voice, “And that I won’t have the wrath of Sheila Rosenberg on my back every time I go to work. I’ve never had a car that nice in my entire life! Not even a rental. Gosh, it’s even the first new car I’ve ever driven!”


Tara chuckled.


“Sometimes I don’t even know how we live on the same street,” she said, then her eyes creased with curiosity, “How did we end up on this street? How did you afford it?”


Kimberly pursed her lips for a moment.


Oh well, she thought.


Tara asked.


“Someone was murdered in this house.”


Tara’s head spun around.


“What?!”


Kimberly’s eyes widened slightly, questioning her decision.


“This was a nice home, on the nice street—”


“Where someone was murdered?” Tara interrupted, shocked.


Kimberly reached out to hold Tara’s shoulders, rubbing her upper arms in a calming motion.


“It happened twenty years before we ever moved in. The poor woman that lived here with her husband, they were burgled and the husband was killed. Her children grew up and she lived here alone for a few years but she was never happy by herself so she moved to be closer to them. She was happy to see a new family make new memories and put the bad ones behind.”


“Where did it happen?” Tara asked cautiously, then paled when Kimberly didn’t answer immediately, “It was my bedroom wasn’t it?!”


“I never asked,” Kimberly answered honestly, “This house is much nicer than we ever could have afforded. You had your own bedrooms, a yard, it was close to town, schools. That burglary was the only one ever on this street, which was actually unusual; Sunnydale had quite a high crime rate. It was unfortunate it turned so tragic. But it gave us an opportunity to live a nice, quiet life and I took it.”


Tara blinked several times as she took that in.


“Why didn’t you tell us?”


“Tell children someone had been murdered here?” Kimberly laughed softly, “The street had forgotten about it, so I did too. They were more concerned with the single mother tarnishing their image.”


Tara frowned.


“I didn’t know you caught flack for that,” she said, closing her eyes and opening them again on her mother’s face, “You protected us from a lot. You were barely older than me.”


She offered a look of appreciation that every parent yearns for and wrapped her arms around Kimberly.


“Thank you, Momma.”


Kimberly exhaled softly; that was powerful to hear after the past few months. She enclosed Tara in another hug and cradled her like she was a little girl.


Her phone beeped in her pocket and Tara looked up at her mother with a slowly-spreading grin on her face.


“Was that a notification for that dating app?”


Kimberly looked both shocked and affronted as she whipped her phone out from her jeans and held it against her chest.


“How did you know?”


“That thing goes off for Nate every two seconds. I found myself humming it on the way to school,” Tara replied, her smirk teasing but then tender, “I’m happy for you. I’m glad you’re getting out there.”


Kimberly relaxed a little and smiled gratefully. Tara nodded toward her phone.


“Let me see him, let me see your match.”


Kimberly cautiously moved her hands back and unlocked the screen. She smiled.


“He seems…cute,” Tara said, looking to her mother for confirmation, “Is he cute? I mean, I'm not a very good judge, but… I think he seems cute.”


“I think he seems cute, yeah,” Kimberly laughed softly, “It’s been a very long time since I’ve been on the lookout for cute.”


“Mom. One of the benefits of having us so young — you’re still a hot, young thing who is now free of her responsibilities,” Tara replied insistently, “If you think he’s cute, message him.”


Kimberly’s hand hovered over the keyboard.


“Maybe it’s not the right time to be starting something, Donny will be coming home soon…”


“And Donny is a grown man who’s finally taking responsibility for his life,” Tara finished, keeping her mother’s gaze, “It’s time you do, too. You deserve to be happy.”


Kimberly put her phone in her lap and kissed Tara square on the forehead.


“I’ll message him later. Right now I’m spending some time with this amazing woman I seem to have raised.”



“I can’t believe we won’t see you for a whole year.”


Willow looked down at the floor beneath her crossed legs.


“I know,” she agreed with Buffy, who was sitting opposite her in much the same way, “It’s insane, really when you think about it.”


Buffy glanced off to the other side of Xander’s bedroom, where he was reading a book.


“…especially now with both of you going.”


Xander looked up and closed his book.


“Everything in life is foreign territory. Kerouac. He's my teacher. The open road is my school.”


Willow smiled at him.


“I think it's neat, you doing the backpack, trail mix, happy wanderer thing too.”


Xander shrugged sheepishly.


“I'm aware it scores kinda high on the hokey-meter, but I think it will be good for me. You know, help me to find myself.”


“Preaching to the choir here, baby,” Willow agreed.


“You were the inspiration,” Xander smiled back, “Wish I had the funds to do it your way. And the hottie by my side.”


Willow blushed and Buffy turned to him.


“What about the chick trying to hang off your arm?”


“If she still wants to hook up when I come back, I won’t resist,” Xander admitted.


Willow turned back to Buffy and reached out to hold both of her hands.


“You’ll be in college. Meeting so many new people, oh and going to parties!”


“Your cool points shoot up without us around,” Xander agreed with a dopey smile.


Buffy looked around at her pals and felt the depth of their absence already.


“I’ll miss you guys.”


“We’ll stay in touch,” Willow promised, “Well, I will. It won’t be that much different than if I went off to college anyway.”


“No visits,” Buffy said, looking down sadly.


“No visits,” Willow confirmed with a matching tone, “But lots of pictures and messages and video chats. And I promise I’ll bring you back a present.”


Buffy raised her eyes, eyes lit up.


“Will you bring me back Italian leather boots?”


“Probably not,” Willow laughed and Buffy joined in.


“I want in on the giggles,” Xander said, moving over to sit amongst them, “Or something that sounds a bit more manly.”


Willow changed one hand over to Xander and Buffy did the same so they were all sitting enjoined.


“And as our lives change, come whatever,” Willow promised to them both sincerely, “We will still be friends forever.”


“You’re sing-speaking again,” Buffy said with an arched eyebrow.


Willow pouted.


“Yeah, but I mean it! It's a relevant song!”


The nods she got in return weren’t as definitive as she’d like, so Willow got up, went over to the corkboard on Xander's wall and took a tack from it. She hid it in her palm and when she sat back down whipped it out and stabbed each of Buffy and Xander’s fingers.


“Ouch,” Buffy said, tugging her hand back, “What the hell, Willow?”


“OW!” Xander yelped, taking his finger and nursing it.


Willow grinned and did the same to her own fingertip. She held it out between them.


“Blood oath. I meant it. Friends forever.”


Xander and Buffy exchanged looks.


“This is super creepy, Will,” Xander said cautiously but extended his hand again, “But I’m in.”


“In,” Buffy agreed and held her finger out.


They pressed their three pricked fingers together and spoke in unison.


“Friends forever.”


They all waited a moment until it became awkward.


“Was something supposed to happen?” Buffy asked, her eyebrows knotting together.


Willow frowned.


“I dunno. I saw it in a movie.”


Buffy and Xander exchanged a look.


“…did anything good happen after?” Xander asked.


Willow shook her head.


“No, they all died.”


Buffy drew her hand back.


“Nice one Will.”


“Now I'm going to be looking over my back all night,” Xander said with a squeak in his voice.


“I thought it would be cool!” Willow defended, starting to pout again as she looked at the little pinprick on the pad of her finger.


Xander and Buffy exchanged a long stare.


“She's a weirdo,” Xander shook his head.


“A total weirdo,” Buffy agreed.


Willow started to look down and Buffy and Xander shared a smile before coming around to hug her from either side.


“But she's our weirdo,” Xander said affectionately.


Buffy rested her head on a now-smiling Willow’s shoulder.


“And we wouldn’t change her for anything.”



Willow finished tying her phone charging cable around the power adapter and tucked it into the side pouch in her rucksack.


She swung it onto her shoulders and looked around.


“Can’t say I’ll miss you too much, room, but hey, at least you were always here for me.”


She nodded once, spun on her heels and left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.


She went downstairs, where her mother was loitering but was pretending to just be passing through. She closed the book she wasn’t actually reading and tried to act nonchalant.


“Oh, are you leaving now?”


Willow nodded.


“Yeah, mom. We’re catching the noon shuttle.”


She glanced at Willow’s backpack.


“Is that all you’re bringing for this entire…year?”


“My stuff is in the car already,” Willow explained politely, “This is just for the bus.”


Sheila nodded in acknowledgment.


“I emailed you information on online TEFL certification.”


Willow opened her mouth and closed it again.


“Thanks,” she said eventually, sincerely, “But we do have a lot of other plans and work visas are a whole other minefield, so…”


Sheila nodded again, then surprised Willow by leaning in and giving her an awkward hug and pat on the back.


“Well, let us know you’ve arrived safely.”


“I will,” Willow replied, smiling widely, “Thanks, mom.”


Sheila moved off and Willow trailed the last step where she spotted her father waiting at the door. She gripped both straps on her backpack and slowly crossed over. She stood in front of him and looked up into his face like she was a kindergartener about to start her first day of school all over again.


“I really hope you’re not disappointed with me, Dad.”


Ira sighed wistfully.


“In another life,” he said with a sad smile, “Another world, perhaps I would have done the same. But I will miss you desperately.”


He extended a white plastic bag toward her.


“I got you this. Silly, really. I just thought you might like some home comforts.”


Willow took the bag, pulled the handles apart and saw a box of strawberry milk powder. She felt herself get choked up and looked back at him.


“Thank you so much, Daddy.”


She threw her arms around her and cuddled into his chest. They stayed like this for several moments until eventually Ira pulled away and cleared his throat, clearly emotional.


“You sure you don’t need a ride?”


Willow shook her head.


“Ms. Maclay is taking us to the bus station.”


She opened the front door and took a deep breath before stepping over the threshold.


“Bye dad,” she said, then called back into the house, “Bye mom. I’ll keep in touch.”


“Bye darling,” Ira said, keeping his shoulders tense.


Sheila approached the door and stood by Ira. They held onto each other and Willow thought it may have been the first time she saw them embrace in a long, long time.


Willow waved all the way down to the gate, then jogged across the road and rang the doorbell at the Maclay house. Tara answered and Willow suddenly felt the first real rush of excitement.


“Ready to get out of here?” she asked with a grin.


“Yes,” Tara replied with an answering smile, “I couldn’t sleep at all last night knowing this was a murder house.”


Willow began nodding in agreement, then did a double-take.


“Huh?!”


“I’ll tell you later,” Tara replied, amused.


Kimberly marched down the hallway then, looking at them like she had when they dressed up as Ariel and Sebastian for Halloween when they were five.


“Look at my little travelers,” she said, putting an arm around each and pulling them into her, “Are you sure you have everything?”


“Yes, mom,” Tara intoned for the nth time, though good-naturedly.


Kimberly raised an eyebrow.


“Are you really sure?”


Tara looked confused and Kimberly just grinned as she took a bag hanging on the hand rail and slid a box out, which she presented to Tara.


“Nice!” Willow said, whilst Tara’s eyes widened.


“Mom,” Tara said, shocked, “This is way too much. You already got us a room.”


Kimberly leaned in and kissed Tara’s cheek.


“You missed out on perfect attendance, you deserve it. And now you have no excuse not to Skype your mother.”


Willow took the new iPad box from Tara’s stunned hands and started reading the back.


“I can set it all up for you on the shuttle.”


“You don’t have to do that,” Tara said, but Willow just smiled.


“I want to, it’s fun,” she said, winking at Kimberly as if she wasn’t the one who had gone out to get it on her behalf, “Great gift, Ms. Maclay.”


Kimberly smiled at her knowingly and put another arm around Tara’s shoulders.


“Come on then, I’ll get you to the bus station before I turn into a blubbering mess.”


“Wait,” Tara said, suddenly remembering something.


She went upstairs and returned two minutes later with two bags.


“Christmas and birthday presents,” she said, handing the bag to her mother shyly.


Kimberly held her hand over her heart.


“Tara…”


She handed off the other bag.


“Give these to Donny on his birthday. If he’s still sober. They’re just video games, but I didn’t get a chance to wrap them.”


If Kimberly wasn’t sure before, she was then of two things; that everything would really be okay and that she didn’t need to worry about her baby going off to explore the world.


She still would worry, of course, but with a reassuring inner voice.


“He’ll appreciate that. I’ll put them away safely,” she said in a resolute tone as if her voice wasn’t cracking.


She went to put them in the closet under the stairs and Willow leaned toward Tara.


“I thought you traded those in.”


Tara shrugged.


“I bought them back.”


Willow inhaled from Tara’s neck for a moment, then pecked her cheek.


“You’re the best person. I can’t believe I get to do this with you.”


Kimberly returned and grabbed the keys.


“Come on, girls. Can’t be late.”


They bundled into the car, which Kimberly started with a smile.


“Don’t worry, Willow, your car and I are becoming fast friends. I’ll take care of your baby if you take care of mine.”


“Mom,” Tara groaned.


“Deal!” Willow giggled at the same time.


As they pulled from the drive, Willow saw her parents standing in the doorway watching her. She raised her hand and her parents waved back right until they went out of sight. Willow sat back in her seat, arms wrapped around herself, smiling.


Tara sat in the front so Kimberly could bask in the last few minutes of her presence. Willow didn’t mind; she was about to get her for a whole year.


They got to the bus station and Willow brought their luggage to the bus while Tara and Kimberly said their goodbyes.


She watched Kimberly cup Tara’s face and Tara look down and shut her eyes. There was a final tight hug and then Kimberly hurried back to the car she’d purposely parked behind the building so Tara wouldn’t see her cry.


Tara marched past Willow straight onto the bus and Willow quickly followed her on. She gingerly sat into the seat beside her.


“Are you okay?” she asked softly.


Tara nodded, cheeks wet.


“Yeah,” she croaked, “Just…hitting me.”


“Do you want some space?” Willow asked gently.


Tara took Willow’s hand and turned to look at her, shaking her head.


“You sure you’re ready for this?”


Willow just nodded lovingly.


“I'll go wherever you will go.”


She sat as close as she could and let Tara lean against her as she sniffled to herself.


“We could have flown from Sunnydale to LA you know,” she mused as her butt wiggled uncomfortably in the seat.


“It would have cost hundreds of dollars,” Tara murmured back and Willow just sighed.


She noticed Tara had fallen asleep when there was no reaction to the first bump of movement as the bus set off. She didn’t mind; it saved her having to pretend she hadn’t already set the iPad up.


She looked above Tara’s head out the window and watched as they drove further and further toward the town limits. Finally, they passed the ‘Now Leaving Sunnydale’ sign and Willow just continued to smile.


Tara slept the whole way and while Willow didn’t mind being a pillow, they actually hadn’t seen too much of each other as they prepared to go away and Willow missed chatting with her.


She woke Tara five minutes before the bus arrived so she’d have a moment to wake up properly.


Tara rubbed her eyes and sat up in her seat.


“I’m sorry, was I uncomfortable?”


“No, you were fine,” Willow reassured, “Well, these seats aren’t great, but you’re always comfortable.”


Tara’s cheeks flushed lightly as she blinked away the sleep.


“I feel like I just fell asleep. Were you bored?”


“A little,” Willow admitted, “But it’s no biggie. I’m glad you got some sleep if you didn’t last night. By the way, murder house?!”


Tara chuckled and briefly recounted what her mother had told her. Willow’s eyes were wide by the end.


“Your mom is right, I’m glad we didn’t know that growing up! Can you imagine how Donny would have terrorized us?”


“Thankfully, I don’t have to,” Tara replied and started fanning herself, “This bus is warm.”


Willow lifted her backpack from between her feet and produced a handheld portable fan.


“I have an extensive checklist of travel comforts,” she said with a smile.


“If I didn’t love you already…” Tara murmured as she flipped the switch and let the cool air blow in her face.


Willow glanced away and noticed they were pulling up to the airport.


“Hey, we’re here.”


Tara turned the mini fan off and hung it from her wrist by the strap attached. They disembarked the bus and collected their luggage.


“I still can’t believe I’m going to be living out of this thing for a year,” Willow commented, “With everything I wanted to bring originally I would have needed five of these. I guess we’ll be getting to know a lot of local dry cleaners.”


Tara’s eyebrow arched just a tad.


“More like laundromats.”


“Oh, right, yeah,” Willow nodded, “Of course. Hey, let’s get into that air conditioning.”


Tara followed Willow’s lead in getting them checked in and through security, hoping the lines wouldn’t be like this everywhere they went. The last time she’d lined up like that had been when her mother took them to Disneyland for Donny’s 10th birthday, and she didn’t have a pretty new headband to distract her this time.


“Those scanners are…intense,” she commented as she pulled her shoes back on at the other side of security, “I feel like they could see what I had for breakfast.”


“Well, there’s no way Ms. Maclay sent you off without something you love…that reminds you of home…” Willow replied, tying her hoodie around her waist, “Hmm…wait, I know, American flag French toast!”


“Correct,” Tara replied, grinning, “Impressive.”


“I know my Maclay women,” Willow said with an answering grin, “Speaking of food, wanna go grab some lunch? I just had a Pop-Tart this morning.”


Tara nodded and slung her bag back over her body, double checking her passport and boarding pass were in the back pocket.


She fell in step with Willow as they entered the terminal and was surprised by how much it seemed like a mall. They even had a food court. Willow stopped in front of the gourmet burger place and Tara’s eyebrows rose as she read off the menu.


“That’s pretty expensive for a burger…you don’t even get fries with it.”


“So I guess that’s a no to the caviar and champagne bar too?” Willow replied jokingly, then cleared her throat when Tara didn’t laugh, “Kidding…”


She glanced away.


“It’s an airport, so all the prices are jacked up,” she said, searching the names for something to stand out, “Sushi?”


Tara’s face scrunched up.


“Is raw fish the best idea when we’re about to get on a twelve-hour flight?”


Willow pursed her lips.


“I’m sure it’s perfectly safe, but, sure, okay, I get the fear,” she nodded quickly, then pointed, “Hey, look, there’s a bar and grill. It’s that or Panda Express and I don’t think we want our last image of America to be our bad interpretation of Chinese food.”


Tara raised an eyebrow.


“You lived off that stuff in high school.”


“I never said it wasn’t delicious,” Willow countered, a little impatiently, “I don’t mind where we eat, just as long as we eat kinda soon, please, baby?”


She stood up on her toes and gave Tara a pleading look, whose smile just spread across her face at the pet name.


“The grill sounds great.”


“Great!” Willow replied, pleasantly surprised, “Let’s grab a table!”


They found a table and sat with their bags tucked under it. Tara reached across and held Willow’s arm.


“I’m sorry if I’m being fussy,” she said apologetically, “I’m just really budget-conscious. I-I don’t want to miss out on things because I overspent on food.”


Willow returned the gesture with an understanding look on her face.


“You’re not being fussy. Everything will be fine.”


Tara dragged her fingers down Willow’s arms to grip her hands. Willow smiled for a moment and folded her hands back into her lap.


“What do you want? I’ll go up and order.”


Tara looked up at the menu board.


“I’ll have the chicken cobb salad,” she requested, “And water, please. Tap. Here.”


She opened her wallet and gave Willow the money, who loitered awkwardly for a second. She wanted to treat but she didn’t want to seem like she was only doing it because of their conversation.


“Um, ‘kay,” she said eventually, taking it uncomfortably.


Tara tried to work out the hesitance.


“Is that not enough?” she asked, looking past Willow again to the menu.


“No, no, it’s plenty,” Willow replied quickly, “Still or sparkling?”


“Tap,” Tara repeated, looking at her oddly for a moment before letting it go.


Willow jumped up and paid for their order, bringing Tara back her change.


“It’s kinda weird, we’ve never really gone out to eat together,” she chuckled with a nervous undertone, “Ordered in pizzas and stuff but that’s it.”


Tara nodded; that wasn’t a revelation.


“You went to the mall with your other friends,” she explained, “You really only liked to hang out with me in more private spaces.”


Willow’s face slowly bloomed into realization.


“…oh.”


Tara reached across for Willow’s arms again.


“It’s okay, I liked being alone with you, too.”


Willow smiled softly, looking down.


Their number was called and Willow collected the tray and brought it back to their table. Willow finished her tacos faster than Tara finished her salad, but they had plenty of time and nowhere to go so she didn’t mind sitting back and waiting. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world to get to watch Tara eat.


When they were finished, they found their gate and nabbed a couple of seats together before it got too crowded.


After a while of Tara watching passing gates board and disembark, she began tapping her fingers on her thigh.


“Lots of waiting.”


“Yep, we’re going to have to get used to that,” Willow replied, adjusting slightly as she too ‘got used’ to the hard plastic seat that differed from the lounge ones she’d experienced in the past, “Hey, wanna play a waiting game?”


Tara nodded.


“Sure.”


“I like to play Airport Reporter,” Willow replied, kicking her legs out for comfort.


Tara settled her head on Willow’s shoulder.


“How do you play?”


Willow cast her gaze around the gate area and discreetly pointed out a lady standing by a pillar, charging her phone. Her stiletto was tapping impatiently and she was staring at her phone intently.


“See that lady over there?” she whispered, “Eldest child, perfectionist, married her childhood sweetheart and has been cheating on him regularly since college. She told him she was coming out west for a conference but she was really meeting a citrus farmer she met on Plenty of Fish. But the joke was on her because he actually ‘farmed’ cocaine and just wanted to use her as a mule.”


“Wow,” Tara replied, slowly understanding the game.


“You do one,” Willow encouraged, nodding toward a man sitting two rows in front of them, “That guy.”


Tara turned her head and considered him; a slightly disheveled guy in an old suit with just a backpack and airport gift shop bag sitting between his legs.


“He had to move away for work but couldn’t afford to bring his wife and child with him. He hasn’t seen them in three months but now he gets to go home for his son’s birthday with a teddy bear from the airport he’s going to be bringing his whole family though because he can finally move them all out so they can be a family again.”


Willow wrapped an arm around Tara’s shoulder.


“You’re too nice for Airport Reporter.”


Tara’s nose scrunched.


“I’m sorry.”


“Never be sorry for that,” Willow replied with an adoring smile, “Want me to show you how to use your iPad?”


“Yeah,” Tara smiled back, “Hopefully I’ll be better at that.”


She lifted her bag onto her lap and unzipped it. She searched through her things and eventually found it in an inside pocket.


“Is this it? When did it get into a pouch?”


“I played around on the bus,” Willow explained, “Made sure, I mean, ah, set it all up. For the very first time. The, um, OS might be different from what you’re used to.”


She showed Tara the button to turn it on and they spent a while personalizing it to Tara’s tastes.


“You can put a picture as a background,” Willow said, showing her the setting, “But you’ll need to load some up first, or take them.”


Tara smiled shyly.


“Oh, can I take one of us—”


“Look, the plane is here!” Willow interrupted, pointing out the window as the plane came into the gate.


Tara looked up and was momentarily blown away by the size. She packed away her iPad and made her way over to the window to get a better look. Willow followed her, leaning back against the window.


“It’s crazy to think it’s going to fly us across the world, right?”


“Crazy,” Tara repeated quietly.


Willow pointed to the end of the plane.


“Do you see that spiral shape? It’s called a Koru. It’s supposed to look like an uncurling fern leaf. The silver fern is like the national symbol of New Zealand and the koru is a big part of the Māori art and symbology.”


Tara smiled at Willow’s expressive face.


“I love learning from you.”


Willow blushed and looked down, but caught Tara’s gaze again and smiled.


Thankfully it wasn’t long before boarding commenced and Tara got to stand in another line. This one was even more claustrophobic, but it was nothing compared to the pushing and shoving as they made their way up the aisle of the plane.


“Just sit in the seat and let me handle this,” Willow said, nodding for Tara to sit into the window on the two-seat section she was very glad she pre-booked for them.


Tara complied, eyeing Willow seductively a little bit and Willow used her resolve face to get their bags into the hold with little ruckus.


“Phew,” Willow breathed as she sat in beside Tara, “This is my first time in coach.”


“This is my first time on a plane,” Tara countered with a small shake in her voice.


Willow ran a hand down Tara’s arm.


“Are you scared?”


“A little,” Tara admitted, looking down shyly, “It seems much smaller inside.”


“Reverso-Tardis,” Willow joked, and Tara cracked a smile, though she only knew the reference from other references Willow made.


Willow linked their fingers.


“I’ll hold your hand. I’ll keep you safe.”


Tara swallowed and kissed Willow’s cheek gratefully. She cuddled into Willow as best she could over the armrest.


Willow started to smile until she felt the stare of the man standing in the aisle waiting to get down to his seat. He wasn’t much older than them, or at least not more than his mid-twenties. He was scruffy and wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt that would have been the first thing Willow noticed had it not been for his hard glare.


“Disgusting,” he muttered under his breath and Willow’s stomach lurched.


She glanced furtively at Tara and the people ahead and behind him in line but he had said it so low no one else had heard. Willow wanted to snatch her hand away, but Tara was holding on so tight. She grabbed the blanket she’d stuffed into the seat pocket in front, tore it from its packaging and threw it over their hands.


Tara lifted her head and looked at her and Willow tried to smile through the palpitations.


“Kinda cold.”


“Oh, okay,” Tara replied softly and laid her head back again.


Willow looked straight ahead, refusing to meet the eye of any other passenger that passed. Her second hand clutched the outside armrest, knuckles white until Tara began to subconsciously rub her knuckles with her thumb under the blanket and she felt some calm. Her eyes went in that direction every couple of minutes to make sure they were still covered.


Finally, the plane was boarded and a female voice with a delightful Kiwi lilt came over the PA system.


“Kia Ora, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Tui and I’m your head flight attendant onboard this flight today. On behalf of Captain Campbell and the entire crew, welcome onboard New Zealand Air flight NZA1, non-stop service from Los Angeles to Auckland. Our flight time today will be twelve hours and ten minutes and we will be flying at an altitude of thirty-five thousand feet with a ground speed of 550 miles per hour. At this time, make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their fully upright position and that your seat belt is correctly fastened. Your portable electronic devices must be set to flight safe mode at this time and for the duration of this flight. Please remain seated until the captain has switched off the fasten seatbelt time. We hope you enjoy your flight today with New Zealand Air. Thank you.”


Tara started to sit up.


“I switched your iPad already, just check your phone,” Willow advised.


“Thank you,” Tara replied sweetly and took her phone out to switch the setting, “That accent was cute, huh?”


Willow couldn’t help but smile at Tara; she knew what she thought was cute in the immediate vicinity.


“The cutest.”


Tara sat back and intently watched the safety demonstration intently. Willow completely lost herself in amusement at Tara’s serious expressions and double-checking of her seatbelt and it took everything in her not to laugh. Thankfully, Willow had an excuse to laugh as she watched the safety video. She’d seen a boring demonstration or two in her time, but this one was stylized as the Lord of the Rings and she followed every second of it.


The screens turned off again and Tara turned to Willow.


“Is your seatbelt secure?”


Willow nodded solemnly.


“I promise.”


Tara sat back and settled her shoulders.


“Cabin crew, prepare for take-off.”


“Here we go,” Willow whispered, fixing the blanket again and taking Tara’s hand beneath it, “It might help to close your eyes.”


“W-why?” Tara asked nervously, “D-does something happen?”


“No,” Willow reassured with a soft laugh, “No, it’s just fast and it might be easier on your stomach. Oh, and!”


She reached into her pants pocket and retrieved a pack of gum. She popped one out of the pack and gave it to Tara.


“Chew this until we’re in the air. It helps pop your ears. They get all blocked by the attitude and swallowing helps.”


“Thank you,” Tara replied, throwing the gum into her mouth.


Willow squeezed her hand.


“You’ll be okay.”


Tara nodded and rested her head back, closing her eyes. The plane turned and taxied for a minute, then began accelerating. Her grip tightened on Willow, who didn’t complain for a moment, and everything tensed.


After a few minutes of her hand being squeezed to a level she wouldn’t feel again until childbirth, Willow gently prodded Tara. She cracked an eye open cautiously.


“We’re in the air,” Willow said softly.


Both of Tara’s eyes opened in surprise.


“We are?”


Willow nodded.


“Look out the window.”


Tara turned her head and ducked it to look out of the rounded window. They were above the clouds and the sky was all kinds of wild reds and purples from the setting sun. The wing of the airplane stood out importantly right by her window and glided through it all majestically.


“So cool…” she breathed, the most magnificent sunset she’d ever seen, “That’s even better than sunset at the beach.”


“Pretty cool and pretty-pretty!” Willow replied cheerily, “Wait until you see it pitch black. It’s eerie and cool all at once.”


Tara sat more comfortably in her seat.


“So this is it. We’re flying.”


“Yup,” Willow smiled, “I’m afraid this is where it gets super boring for oh, eleven hours and fifty minutes or so. But I put games and stuff on your iPad and they have movies and other videos on these little monitors.”


Tara nodded and got her earbuds out. Willow winced. They were on the wing and Willow knew Tara’s little earbuds would be entirely useless. Hers were noise-canceling and a lot better quality. She couldn’t in good faith let Tara suffer like that.


“Here, use mine,” she offered nonchalantly, “They’re, um, more comfortable.”


Tara took them hesitantly.


“Don’t you need them?”


Willow shrugged.


“I’ll read or something.”


She took out her phone and loaded up her Kindle app to find something to read while Tara found some movies to watch. She got a Sprite when the drink cart came around and a little pack of pretzels and thought this flying thing wasn’t so bad.


Willow meanwhile had abandoned reading and was sipping on ginger ale to calm her motion sickness. When the dinner cart landed upon them, Tara took the headphones off as the flight attendant addressed her with a smile that Tara thought must start hurting her face if she had to maintain it for the whole flight.


“Spaghetti bolognese or chicken curry?”


“Chicken curry, please,” Tara answered quickly and Willow reached out to flick Tara’s tray down when Tara didn’t.


“Oh, right,” Tara added, smiling gratefully, “Thanks.”


She peeled away the packaging on her containers of food and began to eat.


“Everyone says airplane food is the worst. It’s not that bad.”


Willow was lying on her side facing Tara, arms crossed lightly over herself.


“The science behind it is pretty cool. Your taste buds and smell receptors change, numb essentially, because of the altitude, so they enhance the flavor of the food.”


Tara opened the little pod her lemon meringue pie was sitting in and nodded along.


“How come you’re not eating yours?”


Willow looked at her meal and thought she felt a little better. She peeled back the foil on her main and as the smell lifted to her nostrils, her stomach lurched.


Her hands flew to her seatbelt and Tara reacted, grabbing the side of Willow’s tray and lifting it before she bolted and sent it flying everywhere.


By the time Willow had returned, the trays were clear and Tara was holding a small bottle of airline-branded water for her.


“Are you okay?” she asked, concerned.


Willow nodded and took the water bottle with a grateful, though shaky hand.


“Yeah. Just…rocky back here, I guess.”


“I saved you the crackers,” Tara replied softly, “Do you want me to rub your tummy?”


Willow blushed, but it just looked like the regular color on her pale cheeks.


“I think I’m just going to try and sleep. They’ll turn off the lights soon.”


“Can I do anything?” Tara asked, but Willow just shook her head and closed her eyes.


She was exhaling in annoyance after only a minute.


“The engine is so noisy.”


Tara opened the front pouch of her backpack, where there were overflowing packs of earplugs. She’d invested in various forms of disposable and long-life plugs after reading all of the travel blogs.


Willow gratefully took a plastic packet of orange foam ones and twisted them into her ears.


“That’s much better,” she said a little too loudly to compensate, which made Tara giggle and put a finger against her lips.


Willow smiled sheepishly and lowered her voice, popping one plug out again.


“Whoops,” she said, then leaned over to try and peer through the space between their seats, “Is there anyone sitting behind me?”


She hadn’t paid attention as she’d stumbled back to her seat from the bathroom. Tara peered through sneakily to assess the situation.


“Yes, but no one behind me.”


Willow frowned, disappointed.


“I don’t want to be that asshole that reclines into someone else’s space.”


“Swap with me,” Tara suggested.


“Are you sure?” Willow asked but suddenly felt so exhausted she hoped Tara would say yes.


Tara nodded.


“I’m not tired, I slept on the bus. And I won’t have to wake you if I need to go to the bathroom.”


They swapped seats and Willow gratefully lay back at full recline without remorse. She fixed the other plug back into her ear and adjusted the little pillow under her neck for comfort. She felt Tara fix the blanket over her and whispered ‘thank you’ with a gentle smile before almost immediately drifting off.


The lights did dim soon after, but Tara was comfortable watching the small screen in front of her. When the latest movie finished, she remembered she needed to get up and circulate her legs, so she did a circle, though it was more of an oval, around the plane.


She saw all manners of open mouths, drooling, snoring and heard more than one baby screaming. She was starting to understand the pitfalls of air travel, which was compounded by her use of the restroom on the way back. She tried not to outwardly grimace at the people standing outside in just their socks that were about to walk into that closet of fermented urine. She was glad she brought her own baby wipes and hand gel and gave her hands a thorough going-over back in her seat.


She played with the monitor in front of her seat until the map and information channel came up. It was so crazy to think they were right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She leaned back to peer out the window from her aisle seat and decided Willow was right, it was eerie but not in a frightening way. The flight was so steady, it was like it wasn’t moving at all.


Her eyes fell away from the window and onto Willow’s peaceful face, with her mouth moving every so often and mumbles coming out. Tara had always been amused by Willow’s sleep antics as a child and as they’d grown, but she really hadn’t witnessed it in a while.


It was odd how many natural friendship exchanges had suddenly ceased to exist that night on the swing when they’d kissed for the first time ‘on purpose’. She really hoped Willow’s recent behavior and the fact that they were leaving the constant presence of family meant this was changing for the better.


She grew tired too and decided to try and sleep, even if it was uncomfortably upright. She kept Willow’s headphones on her ears in lieu of earplugs and played some calming music she used at home to relax.


It worked, and neither of them woke until the lights flicked back on and the cart came around with breakfast.


“Hey,” Willow greeted sleepily as she pulled her seat up, “Wow, I was really out.”


“Not long left,” Tara replied, stretching her arms above her head, then grabbing her neck, “Oof.”


“Oh, I know that look,” Willow replied sympathetically, “Twisty neck cramp?”


“That sounds about right,” Tara replied through a silent groan.


Willow’s eyes glanced around and then she reached out and lightly massaged her fingers against Tara’s neck. Tara moaned appreciatively and Willow retracted her hand.


“Oh, um, breakfast.”


They got trays with scrambled egg and sausage, as well as yogurt and a fruit salad. Willow was starving and tucked in without issue and Tara ate slower but finished everything too.


“This is good airplane food,” Willow concurred with Tara from earlier, “This is better than the food I’ve had in some business class. I’d buy these yogurts.”


“Maybe they’re a brand, remember it and we can look,” Tara suggested, “It is pretty tasty.”


Willow nodded and turned the pot so she could look. She stretched her legs under the seat in front when the trays were taken but kept her seat up since descent was imminent.


“When we get there, everyone goes crazy and jumps up. I think we should just wait it out and go after everyone. I don’t want you getting pushed around.”


Tara’s eyes shone gratefully and she lifted her hand to cup Willow’s cheek gently.


There was the last rush of people moving around the cabin and using the restroom and flight attendants coming around to check seatbelts. Tara held each armrest securely as she prepared for whatever this part felt like.


Finally, there was a light thud and Tara looked at Willow, alarmed. Willow patted her hand.


“It’s okay. That’s it, it’s over.”


“Did we land? Was that it?” Tara asked, surprised, “I didn’t even feel it until the bump.”


Willow smiled.


“That was the wheels. It was a smooth landing. It’s okay.”


Tara smiled excitedly back and stretched around to look out the window, even though it was only runway.


They gradually slowed to nothing and that friendly voice spoke to them again across the PA.


“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Auckland Airport.”

Chapter Text


Auckland
(Part 1)


I Thought This Wouldn’t Hurt A Lot, I Guess Not



“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Auckland Airport.”


Tara saw the shuffle Willow had spoken of as all the passengers around them seemed to brace themselves to jump out of their seats.


“Local time is 5:17 am and the temperature is 11° Celsius/52° Fahrenheit. For your safety and comfort, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened until the captain has turned off the fasten seat belt sign. At that point we will have we have parked at the gate and it is safe for you to move about the cabin. At this time, it is safe for you to use your mobile devices. Please check around your seat for any personal belongings you may have brought on board with you and please use caution when opening the overhead bins, as heavy articles may have shifted around during the flight. If you require deplaning assistance, please remain in your seat until all other passengers have departed. One of our crew members will then be pleased to assist you. On behalf of New Zealand Air and the entire crew, I’d like to thank you for joining us on this trip and we are looking forward to seeing you on board again in the near future. Haere mai.”


Tara rubbed her eyes and kept her hand on her seatbelt.


“Do we have to do all the security again? Take our shoes off and everything?”


Willow shook her head.


“No, we just have to go through immigration. Show them our passports and those arrival cards we filled out. They might ask to see our ticket to Melbourne so they know when we’re leaving.”


Tara smiled at Willow softly.


“I’m so glad you’re here with me.”


Willow felt her belly flop but in a nice way this time.


“I’m so glad I’m here with you too. But you would have figured it out. You’re so smart.”


Tara rested her forehead on Willow’s for a brief moment.


“I’m looking forward to fresh air and stretched legs.”


Willow laughed.


“Me too. Soon.”


The plane began to disembark and Willow nodded for Tara to go ahead when she saw a gap. The guy standing behind them was much kinder than the one Willow had encountered on the way in and helped them get their bags down from the overhead compartment.


Willow went through immigration first so Tara would see how easy it was and Tara followed through moments later.


“That wasn’t bad at all,” she said as she packed away her passport, “What now?”


“We catch a car to the hotel,” Willow answered, “That’s it, baby, we’re here.”


They walked outside and Tara stopped to inhale the air. It felt fresh after so long in the airplane, and different she thought too…clean and pure in her lungs and electric through her blood. She may have been imagining it, but it felt real to her.


She saw Willow on her phone trying to connect to the airport Wi-Fi and suddenly registered what she’d said earlier.


“Wait, um, isn’t there shuttles and buses available and stuff? Taxis are expensive.”


Willow rubbed the side of her face, the air wasn’t quite cool enough to stun her tiredness away.


“I’ll pay for the car, it’s no big deal.”


Tara shifted uncomfortably, which irritated Willow.


“I’m exhausted, Tara, please, do we have to fight about this? Do you really want to cart our luggage around this whole airport and then navigate our way around the city with it at this hour?”


The hurt look on Tara’s face had the power to stop Willow's tiredness and her words.


“Shit, I—I’m sorry,” she said softly, “Can we just get the car?”


Tara just nodded and looked away.


Willow smiled in relief and pointed down the terminal road a bit.


“There’s the pick-up zone.”


They made their way over and Tara pulled up the reservation to get the address of the hotel they were booked into, thanks to her mother.


“The pictures look really nice and it’s right in the middle of downtown,” Tara explained to Willow when they were sitting in the car, “I have to say, I’m very grateful there’s a real bed and not a bunk bed coming my way.”


“Bunk bed?” Willow asked with a scrunched up face but didn’t have time to contemplate as Tara caught her attention to show the city coming into view.


It was twilight and the city was waking up; the tall buildings still lit in their evening lights and shimmering in the surrounding water.


Their hotel was at one of the harbors.


“This is stunning,” Willow said as they stood right on the water’s edge at the front of the hotel, “I’m blown away.”


“Thank you, Momma,” Tara smiled, “She’ll want lots of pictures.”


They wheeled their bags inside the grand reception area which was all marble and sleek surfaces. There was big plush seating for people to lounge in and multiple water features were lined with lanterns.


“Thank you, Momma,” Tara whispered again as she looked around in awe.


She never would have picked something this extravagant for herself, never been able to afford it either. She knew the only reason her mother could was because she’d traded in a bunch of credit card points that Tara secretly suspected she’d been saving for herself to go on a little break.


The closest she’d ever been to somewhere this fancy before was in her junior year when she’d been part of a youth orchestra playing in Los Angeles and she’d run in to use the bathroom in the Four Seasons when their bus broke down.


She let Willow lead the check-in and admired the art adorning the walls. The desk clerk with a name tag that said Theo, and a reserved but bright hairstyle that said he was restraining his flamboyance, welcomed them and found their reservation.


“Ah yes, I see you here…we would be happy to store your belongs until check-in opens at 2 pm,” he said with an inexplicably cheery tone considering the hour.


Willow frowned, slowly turning it into a pout.


“We’ve been traveling for 24 hours. Is there anything you can do?”


“We are pretty busy this weekend…” Theo mused as he typed into the computer, “There’s a deluxe room available in the same type, but it’s an extra 75 New Zealand dollars per night. You seem like nice girls, I can do it for 50.”


“Done!” Willow replied eagerly as she whipped out her wallet, “Credit okay?”


Tara watched with concern as Theo ran the card but bit her tongue. Her neck cramp reappeared and she brought her hand to just under her hairline to massage it.


She watched Willow get the credit card shaped keys to the room and be given instructions to get to the elevator. Willow pressed the button for their floor and bounced up and down on her toes.


“That’s a high floor, the view should be amazing.”


“Hope so,” Tara replied, opening and closing her palm around the handle on her case; a subconscious release of frustration.


Willow checked the room number written on the key pouch once again when they arrived at the floor and led Tara down the corridor to the door of room 1113.


She slid the key into the reader and back out. A green light flashed and Willow put pressure on the door handle to open it.


The door opened right into the room. It had plush grey carpet, a huge king bed with crisp, white sheets, and a compact four-person table right beside the sliding glass door that led to the balcony.


“Nice,” Willow said, lifting leaving her bags on one of the two footstools that sat at the end of the bed alongside each other.


Her gaze paused on the large, but most notably, only bed in the room. Her brow creased.


“Did your mom book this room?”


“No, she booked a different room,” Tara muttered, but Willow had already stepped toward the windows.


“Check out the balcony! I was right about the view!”


She slid the door open and stepped out, then popped her head back in excitedly.


“I know we’re exhausted, but do you want to just sit here and watch the sun come up together?”


She looked so earnest, Tara struggled to hold onto her annoyance. Willow had only done something nice for them, after all.


“Yeah, that’d be nice,” she agreed softly and followed Willow out onto the balcony.


The view, indeed, was amazing; a clear scape of the harbor and lit-up city architecture, all illuminated in a soft orange glow.


“I’m on the other side of the world,” she whispered in awe.


Willow smiled softly at Tara’s profile taking in this new experience. She’d never been here either, but experiencing it with — through — Tara was amazing. It was the best filter.


She pulled up one of the chairs and put it beside Tara for her to sit into. Tara did it almost subconsciously, her weary legs responding before her mind registered what they were doing.


Willow sat in a chair beside Tara and watched her eye follow the skyline.


“Thank you,” she said, putting her hand over Tara’s.


Tara turned to her with a gently sloped, curious smile.


“For what?”


“Just being you,” Willow answered, shyly looking away.


Tara reached out and touched Willow’s cheek.


“You’re such a sweetie.”


She put her arm around Willow’s shoulders and pulled her in close.


They watched the sunrise drench the city in brightness together silently, quietly pondering all it would have to offer.



Tara woke lying beneath crisp sheets she barely remembered slipping under before she had crashed.


Her mouth felt fuzzy and desperately cried out for her toothbrush. She looked across the bed but the other side remained unslept in, as smooth and tucked in as when they’d first walked into the room.


Her eyes cast downward to the watch sitting on her wrist, but she hadn’t changed it from California time yet. She was too groggy to figure out the time difference, but when she turned over she saw an alarm clock beside the lamp and noted it was lunchtime.


Good, she thought. If she got up now and lasted until that evening, she’d been in a good position with her jetlag, or at least operating on local time.


She started to hear some clacking noises and lifted her head off the pillow. She saw Willow sitting at the table on her laptop, fingers flying as they usually did. Tara sat up fully and Willow looked over to her.


“Hey, you’re up.”


Tara made a noise of agreement as she got out of bed. She walked into the bathroom and realized her toothbrush was still packed, but there was a packaged one on the complimentary toiletry tray that seemed a whole lot more appealing than rooting through her luggage.


She ran the faucet and splashed her face, then used the washcloth folded neatly on the marble surface to dry it. It was the softest material she’d ever touched to her skin. It felt like she was being caressed by a cloud.


She squeezed toothpaste from the little tube provided and actually moaned for a moment when the mintiness instantly refreshed her mouth. She gave each tooth a thorough brushing and rinsed her mouth several times until her tongue moved around cleanly.


She glanced down and realized she hadn’t even gotten changed before falling asleep and was still wearing the t-shirt and sweats she’d traveled in. She definitely needed out of them and into fresher clothes. She walked back into the room and unzipped her suitcase.


She cast her eye toward Willow as she found new clothes to wear.


“Did you sleep?”


“No, I was wired,” Willow replied, her fast tone indicating she probably still was, “We’re so central here, we can walk to anywhere in the city. I know you wanted to do the Sky Tower, and I found this cool discount card we can pick up to get in cheaper. Plus get other things at a discount too, and not just here, when we travel south too. We can use it with the accommodation booking portal you found for us to use and build more points. Then we can redeem them for other accommodation. It’s a perfect loop of savings.”


Tara massaged the back of her neck again and picked out jeans and a nice blouse.


“That’s great.”


Willow sat back in the chair, hands crossed over her stomach.


“I’m starving. I almost raided the $20 Kit Kats in the mini bar. Do you want to go grab some lunch?”


“$20 Kit-Kats?” Tara asked in confusion as to why anyone would ever pay that, “Um, yeah, we can get lunch. Is it okay if I shower first? I’ll be quick.”


Willow nodded.


“Sure. I’ll find us a good place to eat.”


Tara paused for a moment.


“Could we maybe walk around the area and find a place together?”


“Oh, okay,” Willow replied with a shrug, “Sure, that sounds nice.”


Tara set her clothes down on the bed and lifted her as-yet unemptied luggage up onto the bed. She unzipped her snack pocket, which hadn’t been totally annihilated during the flight and took out the Kit-Kat that happened to be sitting inside. She brought it to Willow and offered it with a soft smile.


“The price is one kiss.”


Willow beamed and jumped up to accept the candy bar and proffer the kiss.


Tara felt Willow’s arms slide around her neck and then her lips press against her softly. All of Tara’s tension lifted with that first press of Willow’s lips and she relaxed into the embrace.


“I have to shower, I have to shower,” she mumbled, forcing herself to pull away.


“I have chocolate,” Willow returned, grinning, and dropped back into the chair to tear open the candy bar.


Tara went back into the bathroom and closed the door. She put her clothes folded on the lid of the toilet and pulled the door back on the huge, golden-hued shower.


Her entire bathroom at home would have fit into that shower. It had jets at various levels and the main shower head was as big as her face.


She undressed and stood into the stadium of a shower, her fingers trailing around the various knobs trying to figure out which to turn. She twisted the one she thought seemed most likely to start the main shower head and was promptly sprayed in the ass with freezing water. She screamed as her hand desperately sought the knob again to twist it off.


After a moment, there was a knock on the door.


“Uh…is everything okay?”


“Fine!” Tara screeched, making the decision to step out of the shower while she figured out the complicated system, “Just…fine!”


She huffed out a breath as water dripped down her legs onto the luscious bathmat beneath her feet and reached in again to figure out how to wash her damn hair.


Finally, water poured out from the top, taking just a moment to warm until it was comfortable enough for Tara to step under again.


The water got hot quickly and soothed her weary bones. She tilted her head forward so it ran down her neck and over her arching back, enveloping every muscle along the way.


She realized pretty quick she had nothing to actually wash with and had to pick up each little hotel-branded bottle sitting on the shelf to identify what it was. The soap was nice, but she had a lot of hair and needed every bit of the shampoo, even filling the bottle with water at the end to make it stretch a little.


Tara spent a lot longer in the shower than she’d ever spent in a shower before. At home, someone was always banging on the door to hurry up, or the hot water would cut out or, once, a missing check in the mail on a final reminder electric bill made the entire house plunge into darkness while Tara had a head full of suds. It all led to showering being a quick event.


Eventually, there was a familiar knock on the door, but it wasn’t the aggressive voice of her brother or the urgent voice of her mother than usually accompanied. It was the sweet, keen voice of the woman she loved if a little overly-keen at that moment.


“…Tara?”


Tara came crashing back down into the moment and remembered the promise of food.


“I’m coming! Sorry!” she yelled as she turned the shower off and stepped out to grab a towel.


Everything here was a cloud and she didn’t want to get dressed, but she couldn’t delay any longer.


She bundled her hair up in another towel and quickly dried and dressed in her fresh clothes. She let her hair down and toweled it through before quickly hanging the towels back up again and opened the door to a plume of released steam as she went to dig out her hairbrush.


“I’m so sorry, I lost track of time.”


Willow was leaning against the doorframe, smiling softly.


“Sounds like you were having some fun in there.”


Tara looked up, eyes wide.


“I-I wasn’t…”


Willow’s whole body lurched with panic.


“Oh god, no, I didn’t mean…!” she started stumbling over her words, “You were…there was yelping and…no I wasn’t, I just…!”


Her mouth opened and closed wordlessly and Tara turned away to brush her hair, blushing.


“I’m um, ready,” she said as she sat on the edge of the bed to slip her shoes back on.


Willow crossed her arms over herself awkwardly.


“You should bring a sweater. It’s winter here, don’t forget.”


Tara nodded and met Willow’s eye with a soft, absolving smile.


“Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me,” she said, fishing out a blue sweater to pull on, “We need to find a supermarket too and get shampoo and stuff. I used up all of those little bottles.”


“Right,” Willow nodded, “Yes, we shall do that.”


“We shall,” Tara replied with a hint of a teasing tone.


Willow stepped away from the wall, her eyes narrowing just a tad.


“You’re making fun of me.”


Tara’s nose scrunched.


“Just a little.”


Willow walked over and linked her arm in Tara’s.


“Jerk.”


Tara pressed a quick but insistent kiss to Willow’s cheek, who blushed as she led them out of the room. They got to the elevator and Willow pressed the button for going down. The doors opened and an older couple was already inside. Willow dropped Tara’s arm as the crossed into it and stood in the corner to be as out of the way as possible.


They got to the lobby and let the older couple out before following.


“Are you okay?” Tara asked quietly as they crossed the lobby and out into the street.


“Yeah, why?” Willow asked; her tone shy, just about, of defensiveness and trying to seem airy.


“No reason,” Tara dismissed, “So which way should we go? Along the harbor?”


Willow nodded in agreement and they hadn’t even walked a blocked when they turned a corner and had a wealth of shopping and food choices at their feet.


They didn’t end up walking far before settling on a place to eat since they were both pretty hungry. Tara suggested the first place that looked cheap to avoid any conflict and Willow would have eaten anything at that point.


It was an open kitchen that was reminiscent of a soul food kitchen at home with a mix-match of table styles. They picked a two-seater at the window with a glass top that looked like it could be garden furniture.


The menu was written on a board above the order counter, scrawled in chalk.


“I’m gonna get the kiwi burger and kumara fries,” Willow said, her pronunciation just slightly off, but enough to raise a giggle from two guys at a nearby table.


“Beetroot, I guess that’s beet? And fried egg,” Tara read, nodding, “…interesting. Delicious I’m sure.”


“What would you like?” Willow asked.


Tara inhaled around her.


“All this beautiful water is making me crave seafood,” she said, reading through the few fresh fish options, “The mussel pot special looks good…especially at half price.”


Willow started to stand, then sat again when she spotted those guys watching her to see what pronunciation she'd flub next.


“Would you order for us?”


“Sure,” Tara agreed and went up to the counter to place the order.


She was given the receipt and two cups inside each other with two sets of silverware wrapped in a napkin sitting inside. She brought them back to the table and put the silverware packages down.


“What would you like to drink? He said pick anything from the fridge.”


“Try L&P,” one of the men from the nearby table called over, “Kiwi classic.”


“Thanks,” Tara replied, looking to Willow to see if that was okay.


Willow nodded tersely and Tara went off to get two bottles. She sat back down and poured them into each glass.


Willow held her cup in her hands and lifted it to her mouth. The smell was strong and almost medicine-y. She took a sip and it was unusual; a little fizzy, a little salty, a little bitter. The lemon hit bubbled across her tongue and she wasn’t quite sure what that overall flavor was, but it was unique.


Tara did the same and she smiled, lifting her cup in greeting at the recommenders.


“Hey, thanks.”


They returned the toast and threw their eyes over the two for a few moments.


“You ladies new in town?”


“Just landed,” Tara replied sweetly.


The guy closest turned in the chair.


“If you need tour guides…”


“We have tour guides,” Willow interrupted curtly, “Thanks.”


The two boys grumbled in each other’s direction and stood up to leave. Willow watched them go through the door and raised an eyebrow at Tara.


“You really need to get better at realizing when someone is checking you out.”


Tara frowned.


“I don’t think…” she started, then shook her head, “It doesn’t matter anyway. I think that’s our food. Whoa.”


A huge pot of mussels was placed in front of her, sitting in a broth that made Tara’s mouth water, with a big hunk of homemade bread beside it.


Equally, Willow’s burger was the size of her head and she needed to cut it in quarters just to be able to eat it.


“Okay, so far, I love New Zealand,” Willow giggled, “Dare you try this unique combination?”


“I’ll stick these, thank you,” Tara replied, running a spoon through the broth and lifting it to her mouth, “Wow, this is amazing.”


Willow continued eating, her eyes lighting up when she tried a kumara fry.


“Tara, try these fries! They’re so good!”


Tara tried one and agreed that they were easily the best fries she’d ever tasted. She pulled the loose shell on a mussel open and lifted it to her mouth. It was salty and buttery and tasted like the ocean and hit Tara’s craving just right.


“This is actually really good,” Willow said as she ate her burger and Tara giggled at the beet juice dotting her nose from the sheer size of it.


“What?” Willow asked, finding Tara’s laugh infectious even without knowing why.


Tara lifted her napkin from her lap, reached across the table and wiped her nose clean.


“Oh,” Willow said, blushing as she saw the napkin come away, “Willow the Dinosaur, Barney’s long-lost companion.”


Tara rested her cheek on her palm and looked up coyly at Willow. Her foot slipped out of her ballet flat and reached across the underside of the table. She slipped it under the hem of Willow’s jeans and rubbed her shin.


“With imagination…”


Willow felt a knot in her stomach at the look Tara flashed in her direction, telling her everything that was happening in Tara’s imagination at that moment. She hid a smile toward the floor and shoved some fries in her mouth to replace the squeeze of arousal in her stomach with fullness.


“So good. Salty. Have some more.”


Tara plucked a fry from the basket and knowingly ate it slowly between her fingers.


Willow gulped and downed the rest of her L&P in all of its unusualness because it would cool her off and wet her throat and dammit, now her brain was the one using its imagination.


She watched Tara bring a mussel shell to her mouth and suck the mollusk free, the broth she’d dipped the shell in wetting her lips and lightly dribbling down her chin. Tara wiped her mouth and never in her life had Willow wanted to be a napkin more.


She busied herself with finishing her meal to distract herself from those feelings and avoided looking at anything that involved Tara’s mouth.


They finished their food and paid with little commotion and walked back onto the street. There was a nice breeze, which Willow appreciated on her warm cheeks and Tara started gathering her hair up in a ponytail.


Kill me now, Willow thought as she saw the loose hair on the nape of Tara’s neck wave freely in the wind, Or she’ll do it for me.


“Uh, you wanted to find a supermarket, right?” Willow asked, averting her gaze.


“Can we find one near the hotel and do a loop?” Tara asked, her arms settling by her side again, “So we’re not carrying a bunch of bags around?”


“Right, good idea,” Willow nodded, “I can map it.”


She pulled out her phone and found a store where they could pick up some necessities just a block away from the hotel in the opposite direction they’d turned in when leaving.


They decided they’d keep going in the direction they were in and find it later, and so spent the next number of hours exploring the downtown area and all it had to offer in shopping and food options and entertainment.


They took a lot of leaflets and pictures of event posters to save and come back to later and spent the day laughing and planning together. Because they wanted to do so much, there would never be enough hours in the day, but now they had options.


As night fell, they found themselves overlooking some different water; a stream running through a park about a half mile from the hotel. A rope bridge was suspended across it, with the rope braided in such a way that you could safely weave your legs through and sit over the stream in its gentle sway.


Tara was lifting her chin toward the same sun she’d watch rise that morning as it set and made the stream glean.


Water rushed beneath then and the trees rustled in the wind and if you listened closely you could hear the rope swinging through the air. The birds' songs were dying but Tara had always loved the end of a song best; the note that resonated and held you in its essence even after it was over.


“Listen,” she said to Willow, who was sitting alongside her, “That is the sound of peace.”


Willow looked at the last rays of sunshine hit Tara’s face and smiled softly.


“Yeah.”


She rested her head on Tara’s shoulder, who extended the opposite arm around and held Willow to her tenderly.


“You getting tired?”


Willow nodded against Tara’s shoulder.


“Yeah, it’s hitting me.”


Tara let her hand fall away gently.


“Come on, let’s get you back to bed. We’re not too far, I don’t think.”


Willow paused and inhaled the sweetness of the moment.


“One more minute.”


A few ‘one more minute’s later, Willow was almost snoring on Tara’s shoulder and Tara forced them both up. She kept an arm around Willow’s shoulders to help her along but had only wandered out of the park entrance for a moment or so when she realized she wasn’t quite sure which way to go.


“Um, do you know which way to the hotel? I know we came this way but is that…?”


“Use the map app,” Willow mumbled sleepily.


Tara took out her phone and pulled up the map app, but it just remained a grey screen.


“It’s not working.”


“Lemme try, lemme try,” Willow replied, taking the phone and poking at it with frustration, “You don’t have any data.”


She tried to take her own phone out of her pocket but ended up sending both phones skidding along the sidewalk. She stumbled to pick them up and Tara eventually grabbed them both and pulled Willow up straight again.


“It’s okay, it’s okay. Look, I can see the harbor between those two buildings. If we walk along it, we’ll find the hotel eventually.”


They walked, Willow mostly shuffling, to the edge of the harbor and thankfully the hotel was about five blocks away, with a little street weaving. When they were in the elevator, Willow had her head against the wall and was mumbling.


“Supermarket…”


“We’ll go tomorrow,” Tara soothed, “You need to sleep. If you sleep all night we’ll be on a good schedule. Come on, just a few more steps…”


Willow took the few heavy steps to their room and crawled toward the bed. Tara helped root out some pajamas and Willow made herself get up to go into the bathroom and minimize a disruptive sleep by changing into them.


Tara pulled back the sheets of the freshly made bed and saw their things had been tidied up. She made a note to be a bit more careful in the future; she was embarrassed that someone else had had to tidy up her mess.


Minutes, too many minutes, later Tara approached the bathroom door and knocked.


“Willow? Are you okay?”


There was no answer so Tara carefully pushed the door open and peeked inside.


Willow was wedged between the shower and the wall, toothbrush half hanging out of her open mouth as she snored.


Tara silently took the toothbrush out, pushed Willow’s jaw closed and pulled her, half-conscious, into bed.


She plugged Willow’s phone in to charge, folded the clothes that had been abandoned in the bathroom and went to sit on the balcony to overlook the twinkling lights of this new city.



“I can’t believe you almost passed out, you big baby.”


“I did not ‘almost pass’ out,” Willow huffed, “I stumbled for a moment, but not because it was so high! My shoelace just got under me!”


Tara grinned as they arrived back at their hotel room door.


“You’re wearing slip-ons.”


Willow looked down at her shoes with a look of disdain worthy of their betrayal and followed Tara into the room. She kicked them off and threw her sweater over a chair as the room was plenty warm without it.


“Okay, maybe I was a little wobbly.”


They’d spent the morning getting a bus tour and history lesson around the city and the afternoon visiting the famous Sky Tower and all its 1074 feet of glory. They had been 700 feet in the air with views 50 miles in any direction and Willow, admittedly, did have to sit for a moment as she took it all in from that great height.


On their way back to the hotel they stopped at a food truck and gotten some noodles, which they’d eaten walking along the harbor with wooden chopsticks.


They hadn’t decided what they were going to do that evening yet. Willow wanted to look through the leaflets they’d collected the day before and Tara just wanted to spend some more time together, though she wouldn’t mind if they… stayed in.


“Is this room too high up for you?” Tara teased and Willow just stuck out her tongue.


Hiding a smirk, she sat on the bed against the headboard and threw her legs up. She put her phone onto charge as it was nearly dead and crossed her hands behind her head.


“This bed is so comfortable. I didn’t wake up once last night.”


“You were out cold,” Tara replied, standing in front of the mirror to brush her hair, “I slumped a little at lunchtime today but I’m glad I powered through it.”


“Yeah, me too,” Willow agreed, “The bus tour guide helped. He was funny and this accent is very uplifting. I really like it here.”


Tara glanced at Willow through the mirror as the brush glided through her hair. She gave the ends another few run-throughs to rid any knots there and put her brush on the desk.


She gave herself the once-over in front of the mirror and turned to face Willow.


“Do you know the best thing about being here?”


“What?” Willow asked, smiling across the room at her.


Tara walked toward Willow slowly and when she got to the foot of the bed, she began climbing over her, to an ever-increasing wide-eyed stare from Willow. Tara held herself up with a palm flat above each of Willow’s shoulders and pressed their lips together softly.


“We are finally…”


Her hips pressed into Willow’s, who gasped in a shaky breath of air as Tara’s lips scorched her throat. Tara sat back up so she was straddling Willow and smirked downward.


“Completely…”


Her hand went to the top button on her own blouse and pulled it free.


“Alone.”


Willow watched each button come loose in slow motion, feeling a heavier and heavier pressure in her chest.


With one button left and cleavage gorgeously wrapped in pink lace on display (with a tantalizing glimpse of blank ink that was still so sexy), Willow suddenly shot up straight.


“I-I can’t.”


Tara’s eyes widened and she immediately grabbed either side of her shirt closed with one hand.


“Oh,” she said quickly, clearing her throat as her cheeks grew pink, “Oh, that’s fine. That’s totally fine, no problem. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”


“I just, I have my period,” Willow waffled and immediately a silent tension came down around them.


Tara blinked several times and finally caught Willow’s eye. Willow felt the cutting stare and had to stop herself from shaking.


“You had your period last week,” Tara said quietly, “You said you were relieved you wouldn’t have it on the plane.”


Willow’s mouth opened and closed, caught in the lie.


“I…”


“Is this about my tattoo?” Tara asked, gripping her shirt closed tighter, self-consciously.


“No, no!” Willow protested, waving her hands in front of her, “I think your tattoo is really pretty, I do! Actually, I think it’s really, um…it’s not your tattoo, it’s not your tattoo!”


Tara’s eyes closed as she looked down.


“Are you attracted to me?”


“Of course!” Willow replied, words coming out in a rush of panic.


Tara looked up again, hurt in her eyes.


“I’m not trying to pressure you. You know I would never do that.”


“I know,” Willow replied surely, “I know that Tara, I…”


She trailed off and Tara’s brow creased.


“Sometimes I feel like you want to tear my clothes off and then…” she said, swallowing before huffing out a couple of quick breaths, “I just… can you just be honest with me? You know I’ll wait, forever, I will. But I need you to be honest, I just need you to be real with me. Can you please tell me what’s going on, can you please just tell me what you’re feeling?”


“I’m disgusted!” Willow blurted and once again her vision skewed into slow motion as she watched the muscles on Tara’s face ripple with multiple flashes of hurt.


“No,” Willow started shaking her head, all the blood draining from her face, “NO! I said that wrong, no! NO!”


Tara stepped off the bed on shaky legs and speedily buttoned up her shirt, missing out on one on the way so it sat on her awkwardly, misaligned.


Willow followed her, falling into the wall with the speed she sought to get off the bed.


“Tara, not you, never you! I’m not disgusted by you. It’s me, it’s all me!”


“You’ve made your feelings perfectly clear,” Tara said, voice fraught as she slipped into the pair of shoes she’d taken off near the table and bolted for the door, “I need air.”


“Tara, wait!” Willow called after her frantically, rushing out and catching the door again before it closed and locked them both out, “Tara!”


She watched Tara disappear around the corner and glanced back at the door her arm was holding precariously open. She pushed her way back in and fell about the room to get her shoes on. She lifted her phone and called Tara’s number, but it just buzzed on the table in mocking silence.


“Dammit!” Willow screamed, before quickly throwing her sweater back over her and stuffing her phone and the room keys into the front pocket.


She sprinted down to the elevators, but Tara was already gone, so all Willow could do was wait with tears threatening to roll down her cheeks for it to come back up so she could get down. She pressed the button for the lobby aggressively and waited the age it seemed for the elevator to descend.


She ran straight through the lobby and skidded through the revolving doors to get out onto the street. She looked up and down each side of the street desperately, but Tara was nowhere in sight. She ran back in and up to the check-in desk, slapping her hands on it to steady herself.


“D-Do you know my girlfriend, she just ran out of here?” Willow asked, with no conscious thought that this was the first time she’d referred to Tara as such out loud.


The woman behind the desk nodded.


“Yes, ma’am, I know her.”


Willow took a key card from her pocket and slid it across.


“If she comes back, can you give her this? She forgot hers. Room 1113.”


She took the key and put it in a new pouch, writing the number on it.


“Of course, ma’am. 1113.”


“Thanks,” Willow rattled off again before stepping off to hurry back outside.


She stood in the same place she had a minute before, this time weighing up her odds.


She looked at her watch.


The Sky Tower opened late.


She turned and headed for there, running in the hopes the wind would whip her cheeks and scare the tears away.


She paid the entrance fee and it was only halfway up to the 51st level she was destined for that she realized Tara had run out with nothing, no money or anything, and would not have been able to get up here even if she’d wanted to.


She looked out of the glass elevators as they ascended higher and higher above the city where she had no idea Tara was, hurt and alone because of her.


She’d seen that look on Tara’s face once before; when she’d told Willow she liked her and Willow had…reacted. This time was even worse, somehow.


She covered her face with her hands and felt a little tug on her pants leg. There was a little girl standing with her parents, smiling cheerily at being allowed to stay up so late.


“Is ‘kay, not so high. Not so bad,” she said, “Daddy scared too.”


The girl’s father cleared his throat but didn’t lift his gaze from the floor. Willow attempted a smile, but it was strained.


The kid looked exactly like Tara had at that age, the age they’d met, and she was suddenly flooded with years of memories; not one of which made her feel disgusted.


One little suffix could have stopped this from ever happening.


Because she was not disgusted, she was disgusting, but not for the reasons she’d thought right up until this moment.


She was disgusting for putting that frown on Tara’s face. She was not disgusting for the thousand smiles she’d put there. Tara’s smile lit up the world and some of it was because of her. Some of Tara’s smiles were because of her and that could only be a good thing.


All of her walls started crumbling in an elevator full of people but no one paid any attention as she hunched down and put her head against her knees.


A hand poked her side and she looked out to see the little not-Tara stretching her arms out.


“Wan’a hug?”


“Don’t bother the lady,” the girl’s mother said, putting a guiding arm around her daughter.


“She’s okay,” Willow reassured, a little choked and smiled at the girl before the doors finally opened.


She straightened up and immediately left only to realize she needed to step back into the elevator to go down again.


She got lost in the shuffle of people coming back down, and though she appreciated the speediness of the lift, the 80 seconds dragged as she struggled not to have an emotional breakdown.


She stopped on the street when she was back on it and tried to take stock of everything.


Her internal rollercoaster was going to have to pull up to the station because Tara was out there somewhere in a city she didn’t know, upset and without any phone or money or anything but the shirt on her back.


She took her phone out of her pocket on the off-chance there was a missed call and Tara was safe in the hotel room, but there was nothing. She shoved it back in her pocket and tried to think of the places they’d seen, the ones Tara wanted to go back to.


It was only after walking another mile of dark streets that suddenly, she knew exactly where Tara would be.


Listen…that is the sound of peace.


She closed her eyes and wracked her brain. Where had that been? She knew it was a park near the hotel, but she barely remembered coming home from it, she was so tired. She pulled up a map, but there were at least six parks within a mile radius of the hotel.


A Google search for any of their names + rope bridge brought up nothing, so with technology failing her, she set about pounding the pavement to search each park.


Two hours, five parks and her voice raw from asking people about rope bridges and if they’d seen Tara (with accompanying photo) later, she crossed through the entrance of the last park and immediately heard the trickling of water.


Stream, you idiot. The bridge is over a stream.


Without bothering to check to see if she would have in fact found the park a lot quicker if she’d searched for a stream, she picked up the pace again and jogged further in until she saw the rope bridge swinging in the moonlight. Someone was sitting with their legs through the ropes, holding the ones on top between their fingers.


It would have been beautiful; it was beautiful, in fact, until Willow got close enough to see the utter sorrow on Tara’s face. It hit her hard, but so did the relief that she’d found her. She ran and skidded on her knees beside Tara, clutching her chest with one hand.


“Thank god I found you,” she panted, hands dropping in the dirt as she caught her breath, “Please let me explain, Tara.”


“I think you were clear,” Tara replied, her voice hollow, her stare unrelentingly forward on some unknown fixed point.


Willow stayed on her knees on the ground where the bridge started.


“No. I wasn’t. I was possibly the most unclear I’ve ever been.”


Tara didn’t react; she stayed completely unmoving apart from the gentle swing of her legs out and under the bridge. She looked broken and it made Willow sick to her stomach.


“Tara, you do not disgust me. You, you’re…you’re so beautiful.”


Tara’s eyes shut and Willow felt more panic rise in her throat.


“Please listen. I know I don’t deserve it but please…please listen.”


Tara finally turned her face toward Willow, her eyelids heavy with the weight of her pain.


Willow remembered seeing those eyes for the first time again. The comfort they’d instantly brought. The little face that had brightened her life so effortlessly and so immediately.


She started talking before she even realized her mouth was opening.


“I saw this little girl and she was you except Australian, at least I think she was Australian, I’m still not totally sure on the accents, I mean they were in the Sky Tower so I don’t think they were local, of course, they might be from another part of the country and doing the touristy stuff and actually now that I think about it maybe it was South African but…” she stopped and took in a breath, “But this isn’t helping.”


Her butt sank so it hit her heels, her body deflating.


“I said what I said…because I disgust me. I thought…I thought I was disgusted because…because you’re a girl,” she said, swallowing and finding herself now unable to meet Tara’s eye, “But I’m really disgusted that I’m such a coward. Disgusted about how many times I’ve hurt you just to avoid my own hurt. I’m disgusted that I let how everyone else sees me affect how I behave when yours is the only opinion I actually care about.”


Tara stayed silent but didn’t rebuff her. Willow focused the spot where the moon hit the stream and watched the water trickle along.


“I kept negotiating with myself in my head.”


Her eyelids flickered closed and she swallowed, clearly struggling to get out what she needed to say.


“I would…okay, it’s like this.”


She took in a deep breath and lowered her voice.


“I would think, ‘okay, Tara’s touching me but it's not really real if we don't kiss during’, then ‘it's not really real if our hands aren’t under our shirts too’, then ‘it's not really real if we keep all our clothes on no matter what we do.’ Really thought I’d outwitted myself pretty good on that one.”


She let out a single, sad chuckle as Tara’s brow began to crease.


“In the room,” Willow continued, gulping, “When you…when I realized what you were suggesting… I was bottoming out. There was nowhere left to negotiate. If we did… it, properly, and I liked it — and I knew I was going to like it — that was it. I was officially…that. And I didn’t want to be…that. I didn't want something else for people to ‘other’ me with for life.”


Tara inhaled softly and Willow looked at her with eyes starting to brim with tears.


“You’ve been so patient. You let me have you however I wanted you and I took advantage and I didn’t even really realize it until right now.”


She looked down again briefly, hiding her face as a sob threatened to rise in her throat.


“I’ve been trying, I really have. I know it probably doesn’t seem like it but I have. I’ve spent so many nights…”


Her voice started to wobble.


“I cried and cried,” she explained, dangerously close to doing the same right at that moment, “Up late at night. And I hurt. And I tried to fight and I cried to god. And it didn’t work. So just now it all culminated tonight and I had a moment, a panicked moment and I made you feel like shit and that sucks. But I adore you in every way there is and I think about that and you and I want it, I don’t want you to think otherwise.”


She made herself look at Tara again, showing her vulnerability.


“You asked if I’m attracted to you. I’m so attracted to you it terrifies me.”


Tara couldn’t help but reach out, intending to caress Willow’s cheek. Instinct made her start to pull back, but Willow leaned in and nuzzled, her eyes closing for a moment as she clearly took in comfort from the action. She didn’t flinch when a couple walked past them.


Tara exhaled slowly.


“Willow…” she said softly, trying to take in all of that information.


She blinked for a moment, sliding her hand down to Willow’s shoulder and squeezing it.


“Doing…anything with me doesn’t mean some absolute…I don’t care how you identify, I never did.”


“I know you don’t, but I do,” Willow replied, her voice hollow with pain and low, embarrassed, “I do; as much as I don’t want to, I do. I’m scared of what those words mean to the rest of the world.”


Tara opened her mouth to say she understood, she’d felt like that too, but Willow rushed in first.


“But I finally get that I can’t do this anymore. I can’t live in this in-between place that denies how important you are to me. I can’t bear all the pain I’m causing…both of us. I want to change. I want to be brave.”


Tara’s eyes softened and she brushed her fingers against the nape of Willow’s neck. Willow gulped.


“It’s not—” she stopped to take a moment before speaking more clearly, “I can’t promise I’m going to change overnight. I know I can’t just flip a switch. But I will change how I deal with those bad feelings. I’ll talk to you and I’ll push myself and whatever else I need to do. I’ll rise above this, rise above this doubt.”


“Willow, I love you,” Tara said, inadvertently gripping the back of Willow’s neck tighter, “All I’ve ever done is try to love you.”


“I know. And all I’ve ever done is deny it,” Willow replied sadly, “I don’t want to hurt you anymore.”


“If you want to stop hurting me, then stop hurting yourself,” Tara replied plainly, maybe as plainly as she’d ever spoken to Willow, “You have to be real with me. I never know where I am with you. This stuff, and at your prom and a bunch of other times. I feel like I'm just an experiment or a thrill but you'll never actually see me as someone you'll commit to, that you want to be in an actual relationship with. I feel that you just want our friendship and…someone to make out with or flatter your ego or something.”


Willow’s face scrunched.


That hurt.


It was deserved, but it hurt.


“Tara, no, I…” she said, swallowing several times as her mouth went dry and heart began to thud but also determined to say it, “I’m in love with you.”


“You are?” Tara asked, eyebrows lifting in surprise.


“Of course I am,” Willow replied, in a tone that could only be described as bewildered, “How can you even ask that?”


Tara’s hand moved back to Willow’s shoulder, holding her there lightly.


“You never told me.”


Willow’s face slowly fell.


“And I never showed you. Not enough. Not clearly,” she said, shutting her eyes tight as her heart squeezed to a similar tautness, “I guess I always thought in the back of my head what I was doing was okay because you knew…”


She shook her head to herself.


“It’s funny, I used to tell you I loved you all the time, before…It was as easy as saying hello. But then the words meant more and I couldn’t admit it because that was another ‘tick’ in the not-straight box.”


“You can’t even say ‘gay’, can you?” Tara asked, though gentle it still made Willow squirm.


She swallowed again.


This was all very raw and they were so very public but she owed Tara being honest for once.


“I get it. My issues are hurting you and they're hurting us. And maybe the right, proper thing is for me to go away and become a better me by myself. And if you ask me to do that I will. I'll do this trip on my own, I'll make sure we're not in the same place at the same time, I’ll take this journey and hope you find your way back to me.”


She scooted closer on her knees.


“But if there's any chance you think we can work this out together…I love you and I just want this to work. I am so sick and tired of being afraid all the time. I just…”


“What?” Tara prompted softly.


Willow exhaled, keeping Tara’s gaze.


“I just want to be happy. And you're a big part of that.”


This was everything Tara had ever wanted to hear but she knew Willow, and she knew Willow was great at telling people what they wanted to hear.


“We can't stay in this stasis. I need to feel like you want a real relationship. Not this…rollercoaster. Not one way behind closed doors and another outside. Because if all you want is friends…or friends with benefits…you have to tell me. I-it’s not fair. I promised I’d always be your friend and I will, but I can’t if you—”


“I don’t mean to cut you off,” Willow cut in, sniffling, “But I’ve never wanted to be just friends. I didn’t always understand what that meant, but I do now and I don’t feel any different. I want you to be my…everything. You are my everything.”


Tara’s heart fluttered at the emotion passing over Willow’s face. She watched as Willow took in two short breaths, then crawled on her hands and knees and leaned in to kiss Tara square on the mouth.


Tara could almost feel Willow’s heart thudding just from proximity. She knew how much this was taking and the gesture Willow was making. It was hard not to melt into it until she felt her cheek get wet.


She pulled away and cupped Willow’s cheek, rubbing the tear away with her thumb.


She mouthed ‘it’s okay’, which just made Willow duck her head to hide more tears.


“I have to ask you to be patient. And I know you have been, so much. But if you stick with me I promise I'll do better. I know that might not mean anything right now but…this is like the very last push off the cliff and I was hanging on by my fingertips. I’m going over,” she said, raising her eyes to Tara’s, “But you make me feel like I can fly.”


Tara could feel her own tears pricking.


“I really need you to mean it this time, Willow. I’ve held back so many times.”


“Don’t hold back,” Willow replied quickly, “Kick me up the ass. If I hurt you, tell me. I won’t run anymore. Nothing is worth feeling how I felt tonight when I couldn’t find you. That’s not who we are. Whatever it is, I’ve…I’ve always been able to find you.”


Tara’s heart burst and she let herself feel the affection behind those words. For better or worse, she was in this. She always had been. She held her hand over Willow’s.


“I trust you.”


Willow sat up, hope etched on her face.


“You wanna try this for real, real? Even…if I’m not perfect?”


“I don’t want perfect, I just want you,” Tara replied in a breath, “The real you.”


Willow shook her head again.


“I don't deserve you.”


Tara frowned in frustration and had a rare moment of abandoned restraint.


“You don't get to decide your worth to other people.”


Willow fell back on her butt, stunned as she processed those words.


“Well, shit.”


And with that epiphany, long-ignored neurons went to work igniting new connections that would ultimately heal them both.


They fell into a silence as everything hung in the air between them.


Reconciled but raw; hope and fear and the impending sense that there had been a massive shift and they were both entering into something unknown.


Finally, Willow broke the spell by reaching out to touch Tara’s arm.


“You're freezing,” she said, instantly whipping off her sweater and putting it over Tara’s shoulders.


Tara started to refuse, but Willow insisted and covered Tara's ice-cold arms.


“Let’s get you inside.”


Tara didn’t protest, the small bit of warmth only highlighted how cold she actually was. It was probably only 45 degrees or so and she’d been sitting in the path of many bustling trees and the associated wind for hours.


She had to stretch her legs for a moment before she could walk while Willow was wiping her own butt and knees free of the dirt she’d sat in.


As they headed for the entrance of the park, she looked around and was surprised to see no one was paying them any attention.


She felt like they’d just put on an entire stage show but other couples were just enjoying their stroll, or people were walking through focused on their music or own thoughts. Even the groups of teenagers were throwing a ball around or laughing at each other’s antics.


No one even looked in their direction until Willow accidentally stumbled into one man, who even then just smiled and apologized and continued on his way.


The way home was filled only with city noise, despite them walking close enough that their elbows kept brushing.


When they got to the hotel, Willow suddenly doubled back when they reached the elevator.


“Wait, one sec.”


The doors opened before she was back and Tara stood in, keeping it open with her arm. More people arrived and before Tara had a chance to react, she was pushed back into the corner and the doors were closing.


Willow jogged back with the second key card and stared at the empty place Tara had been.


Ouch.


She despondently pressed the up button and rode the elevator alone up to the floor.


Tara was waiting when she got there and Willow handed over the key card awkwardly.


“Guess you need this. I gave it in at the desk in case you came back.”


“I didn’t just…” Tara tried to explain, “People just piled in.”


“It’s okay,” Willow dismissed, ducking her head to hide.


As they walked down the corridor, she glanced over at Tara and really noticed how red and raw her eyes were under the bright lights.


For the eighth hundred and seventeenth time in her life, Willow felt guilt and it had only compounded every time since the first.


Once inside the room, Tara went straight into the bathroom and spent quite a while in there.


Willow just sat at the foot of the bed with no idea how to feel.


She wanted to cry, but she didn’t feel she deserved the sympathy it would invoke. Everything still felt so strained. She’d explained, she’d apologized—


She suddenly jumped up and went to the bathroom door. She placed her palm flat on it.


“Tara?” she called through, “I don’t think I said sorry. I am, I’m…I’m so sorry.”


Her hand slowly fell away.


“I’ll leave you alone now.”


She went back into the room and felt lost in the small space. She had never been claustrophobic, but she felt it now.


Tara came back out dressed in her pajamas, face clean and hair tied up.


“I’m going to go to bed. I want to go to the market tomorrow and it starts at 8 am.”


Willow internally squirmed uncomfortably. Tara’s tone wasn’t harsh but she was exhausted and little shoulder devils told Willow she was fed up. Of her.


“I can see if I can get another room for the night.”


Tara looked at Willow strangely.


“Why would you do that?” she asked and briefly ran her hand across Willow’s spine as she passed by.


That small gesture of affection meant so much to Willow, like laying a jacket over a puddle of self-doubt so she could step over it.


“I might go to bed too. Walked around a lot today.”


Tara nodded and Willow moved into the bathroom. She sat on the toilet lid and started rolling her neck to try and relieve some of the tension.


As she rolled it to the right, she spotted her pajamas sitting on top of the radiator. Tara must have put them there to warm them up for her when she was in there.


The puddle started to drain.


She changed into them and brushed her teeth, then used a washcloth to clean her face. When she looked at herself in the mirror, her eyes weren’t red like Tara’s but they were sunken and slightly twitchy with anxiety. She quickly glanced away and folded the washcloth up again.


Back in the room, Tara was already lying in bed. Willow crept over to ‘her’ side, the side she’d been sleeping on. She’d never had a side of the bed before; she just rolled around wherever she wanted.


Except when Tara had slept over, and then no matter how she fell asleep they seemed to end up pressed together in some way.


For warmth, she’d always told herself.


In California.


In fact, the last year had been the least cuddly they’d ever been. Willow figured she’d rejected it so much that Tara had stopped trying.


As she looked across the vast expanse of bed, a chasm of her own making, she desperately wanted to go back to the days of curling up together beneath one blanket.


Now it was so complicated.


But did it have to be?


She looked over at Tara again.


“Could I put my arm around you?”


“Of course,” Tara replied without hesitation or complication.


Willow slid across the sheet and through the barrier of her own mind and slid her arm comfortably around Tara’s waist. She awkwardly settled her head above Tara’s shoulder, who simply turned her head and gave Willow a brief kiss.


Willow almost burst into tears.


All she could see in Tara’s tender gaze was how much hurt she’d put there earlier.


“You know what I said to Donny, that day of my birthday when I went off on him?”


Tara shook her head and Willow lips pursed together, pained.


“I said, ‘you don’t just get to indulge your own problems and ignore how much it’s hurting other people’.”


Her eyes closed to hide.


“Such a hypocrite.”


Tara sighed deeply.


“Willow, there is no equivalence.”


“But there’s still some truth,” Willow replied sadly.


Tara placed her hand on Willow’s cheek to force her to open her eyes.


“The truth is that losing yourself in your mistakes is no better than ignoring the mistakes to begin with,” she said, not breaking Willow’s gaze for a second, “And the truth is nothing without promise. Without acknowledgment of how to move forward and not drown in a pool of what was. Without a commitment to be better.”


She sighed again, though lighter this time.


“If you meant everything you said—”


“I did,” Willow replied quickly.


“Did you listen to what I said?” Tara asked with an arched eyebrow.


Willow nodded.


“Yes, every word.”


“The part about hurting yourself?” Tara asked pointedly, “Beating yourself up?”


Willow swallowed deeply.


“Hard to change the habit of a lifetime.”


“I know,” Tara replied through a soft breath, “But you can start tonight.”


She kissed Willow again, who accepted it gladly with a smile to Tara’s mouth as the doubt-puddle evaporated.


It would fill again, but for now, it was gone.


Tara moved her hand over Willow’s head and fell off at her neck.


“Goodnight, Willow,” she whispered as her arm naturally fell to hold Willow’s around her waist.


Willow felt the most peace she’d ever felt by falling asleep with the scent of Tara’s lotion on every inhale.


“Goodnight, Tara.”

Chapter Text


Auckland
(Part 2)


Every Breath, Every Hour Has Come To This


“Thanks!”


Willow took the two bottles of water from the vendor and stuffed her change into her wallet. She hadn’t quite mastered the new currency yet and so was paying for everything with bills and shoving the change back into the pocket. She’d come to dread the places she couldn’t pay with her card.


She walked from the little café out onto the deck of the boat. She brought the drinks back to Tara and slid onto the bench beside her on the side of the boat where they had the best view of the water and surrounding islands.


Tara smiled gratefully as she opened her bottle of water.


“We need to get reusable ones. This plastic is so bad for the environment,” she said as the bottle squeezed the air out under Tara's grip, “It’s so beautiful isn’t it?”


Willow smiled back and nodded.


“Very.”


The boat sailed by one of the islands in the gulf and Willow began pointing.


“Look! Look, little penguins!”


She jumped up to take a picture but misjudged her footing and went skidding on the slick surface. Tara caught the back of Willow’s shirt before she risked being thrown overboard and both of them ended up on their butts, but at a safe standstill.


“Whoops,” Willow said, blushing profusely as a few laughs carried through the wind from the other people on the boat, “Thanks for saving me.”


They helped each other stand; Willow avoiding the gazes of anyone around her, though if she had looked at them, she would see they weren’t looking back anymore.


“That was close. I can see the headline now, Safari Skidding Stupidity: Dumb Tourist Gets Eaten By Orca.”


“Whale,” Tara whispered, looking past Willow.


Willow started to shake her head.


“Actually orcas are dolph—”


“Whale,” Tara interrupted louder than before and pointed in front of her.


Willow spun around and gasped softly as she saw the humongous outline of the whale in the water just a few feet in front of them.


“Whoa.”


Everyone gathered around the railing to watch the whale slowly come to the surface.


“It’s frickin’ huge!” a young boy, seemingly another American tourist, shouted causing a scowl from his mother and a shushing from his father, while most everyone else just smiled.


The whale started to lift its tail fin and moments later it made a resounding smack against the water again, causing a ripple in the water that shook the boat for a minute and a ferocious splash to soak everyone standing over the railings.


Willow spat out some of the seawater that went into her mouth whilst Tara ran her hand over her face to dry it somewhat. They looked at each other and started laughing.


Things hadn’t been tense between them, but they had been a little…off, at least in Willow’s mind. She felt awkward in their interactions. But Tara’s laugh was her happy place and laughing with her was as natural as breathing.


Willow smiled coyly and looked away to take some pictures.


She felt Tara’s arm slide around her waist and a squeeze of fingers around her hip bone. She wanted to look around, to see if anyone was looking, judging, but she didn’t.


She faced forward because she knew the only way she was ever really going to move past this fear was to genuinely stop caring. Until then, fake it ‘til you make it.


Besides, it felt nice to be held like that. Just the loose grip made her feel steady, protected. And she would be lying if she said the soft caress of Tara’s thumb above the waistband on her pants, brushing against the small patch of skin where her shirt rode up, wasn’t disproportionally sensual.


They rode out most of the rest of the boat ride like that, mostly silent but to highlight some wildlife to each other, and continued to get the occasional spray of water from the more playful amongst them.


As they approached the harbor with the sun starting to set, they hiked up to the top deck of the boat where they could sit and watch it disappear beyond the horizon.


“Okay, we definitely need to get out of these wet clothes,” Tara said as they disembarked, thanking the crew member helping them off as she did so.


“Lucky the hotel is just a block away,” Willow replied, her shoe squelching for a moment as she stepped onto the grass, “That was really amazing.”


Tara smiled.


“Yeah, it was.”


She brushed her hand lightly against Willow’s.


“My mom will be so jealous we saw dolphins.”


“I got good pictures,” Willow replied, somewhat bashfully, “You can send them to her.”


“Thanks,” Tara replied gratefully.


They got back to the hotel and wrung themselves out as best they could before entering the lobby. They moved into the elevators as quick as possible and Willow pressed the button for their floor. Just before the doors closed, another older couple stepped in. They took one look at them both, clothes slightly stuck to them and hair bordering on frizzy and promptly stepped back out.


Willow took offense and scowled at them as the doors closed.


“Sorry our clothes aren’t perfectly waterproof!”


Tara pursed her lips, but couldn’t help the laughter tumbling out. Willow looked at her and joined in until they were both almost doubled over.


They just about composed themselves by the time they got into the room and were sobered completely when they stepped into the room and were hit with a blast of heat like they were at one of the volcanoes peppered around the island.


“Whoa,” Tara said, pulling the collar of her wet shirt away from her neck, “It’s hot in here.”


Willow grimaced and went over to the thermometer after dropping her stuff at the table.


“I’m so sorry, I turned up the heat this morning because we got up early and it was chilly. I forgot to turn it back.”


“It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” Tara reassured, “It’ll help our clothes dry out.”


Willow turned into the bathroom and grabbed a towel, which she tossed across the room.


Tara caught the towel and threw it over her neck.


“Thanks, baby.”


Willow nodded in acknowledgment with a curious smile on her face as she ducked back into the bathroom.


That hadn’t felt weird at all. The whole day hadn’t, in fact.


Honestly, if Willow was being truthful with herself, she had only felt things were off because Tara hadn’t ‘tried anything on’ with her since ‘that’ night. Willow didn’t know if she just didn’t want to anymore or…


Maybe she’s waiting for me to do it.


Willow peeled her clothes off and sunk down to sit on the closed toilet lid. She thought some more as she idly wiped herself down with the towel.


She’d unloaded a lot on Tara that night and woken up to a few things too. Tara hadn’t known she loved her, because she’d never shown her.


I’ve always put the brakes on…I guess now I have to step on the accelerator.


Tara had put herself out there so many times, so even if Tara rejected her, it was her turn to put up or shut up. It was her turn to make up.


Starting right now.


She nervously stood up.


She wrapped the towel around her and went to the sink to brush her hair, her teeth and give her underarms another roll of deodorant.


Am I really doing this?


She crept out of the bathroom and watched Tara, sitting on the side of the bed with her back to her, changed into a tank top and some shorts she slept in while tossing her hair through the towel.


Willow gulped as she watched Tara throw her slightly curled hair back. Unkempt hair shouldn’t be so sexy.


“Do you mind if I put on some music?”


“Sure, go ahead,” Tara replied nonchalantly, with no idea of how she was affecting Willow, or how much she was just cementing in Willow’s mind what she wanted to do.


Willow brought her phone to the clock radio on her nightstand, which doubled as a docking station. She found the T Time playlist and set it to play low, just a bit over background noise. Sade was first up and Willow glanced at Tara out of the corner of her eye, but there was no reaction or recognition of the music Willow always played when they got close.


Though they'd never been as close as Willow was about to suggest.


Willow turned the music up just a touch higher but Tara just moved the towel down from her hair to her arms, still clueless to the tone Willow was trying to set.


Willow bit her lip, watching Tara’s shoulder muscles ripple from behind.


She took in a long, silent breath, then flicked her fingers over the tuck of her towel and let it pool at her feet, leaving her very much naked.


She took a step forward and then suddenly stilled, the enormity of it all hitting her. Two shorter breaths followed and she brought one knee up onto the bed.


Tara felt the sag of the mattress and then some additional trembles through the bed as Willow crawled over to her, but still wasn’t paying much attention. That was until she felt a hand brush away hair from the back of her neck and then soft lips pressed into the spot below her ear and then further into the crook of her neck.


Still completely unaware of the sight that was waiting behind her, Tara tilted her neck to offer more skin and closed her eyes to really savor it, as she’d learned to do from any affection from Willow.


Willow kissed along Tara's shoulder and with her eyes still closed, Tara turned her head and found Willow’s lips, kissing her softly.


She held Willow’s chin under her fingers and opened her mouth to encourage Willow’s tongue into it because honestly, it had been a while since they’d made out properly and she missed it.


She felt Willow’s tongue slide against her lips and she moaned, her hand sliding behind Willow’s neck so her fingers brushed the downy hair at the nape. Her hand slid back over Willow’s shoulder so the base of her palm sat above her collarbone. She could feel the deep thump of Willow’s heart through her skin and her eyes fluttered open to question it.


Her eyelids flickered several times as they focused and then looked downward, realizing Willow was naked. Her eyes shot up sharply to meet Willow’s timid gaze.


“Only if you want to,” Willow said quickly, quietly; enclosing her bottom lip under the top nervously.


Tara took in a soft but audible breath as she realized what was happening. She lifted a hand and cupped Willow’s cheek, running her thumb over Willow’s lips.


“Are you sure?” she asked softly, “Because I meant it. I don’t mind waiting if you’re just honest with me. I don’t want anything you don’t want.”


Willow very gently bit the pad of Tara’s thumb and watched as her pupils completely blew out with arousal. It stirred a level of eroticism in her that she hadn’t known was there.


“I want you,” she said emphatically and emboldened from being on the end of such a penetrating stare.


She brought their faces close together and tugged Tara’s bottom lip between her teeth.


“How’s that for honest?”


Tara now knew why Willow’s heart was pounding so hard because hers was doing the same.


She caught Willow’s neck again and pulled her into a proper smooch. The towel fell off her lap as her waist twisted to be closer to Willow. Her butt scooted back until she could swing her legs onto the bed and she fell back until her head hit the pillows.


Her palms stayed flat on Willow’s collarbone, holding her up on top. Her eyes stayed locked on Willow’s eyes for several seconds before they dropped to finally fully take in Willow’s body.


“Wow.”


She’d imagined this so many times; so many ways but even the most fleeting glance overwhelmed her in a way she hadn’t, couldn’t, anticipate.


Her fingers had touched Willow’s skin, but never so unrestricted, so unconstrained by clothing as a mask for fear.


Willow was soft with gentle curves that Tara knew were there, but were often hidden. Her breasts sat perky and surprisingly symmetrical on her chest with dusky pink nipples taut with no chill in the air to blame it on. Her stomach was flat and met her hip bones at the apex of a V where a flash of red hair flamed between her legs.


Tara’s stomach somersaulted as she felt a direct response between her own legs.


She dragged her gaze upward to where Willow was trying and failing not to look nervous. Tara pushed herself to sit back up and brought her mouth to Willow’s ear.


“Wow,” she breathed again as she sunk her lips into Willow’s neck.


Willow gasped softly; even the touch of Tara’s lips felt electrifying in a way she’d never known before. She turned her head in and sought a kiss, which Tara gave willingly.


She felt hands wrap around her and roam her back; the longest contact on her bare skin she had ever received. Heat was pooling between her legs and she was scared by how aroused she was becoming, by how out of control it made her feel, but being pressed close gave her a feeling so warm and encompassing she couldn’t imagine being outside it ever again.


She broke the kiss and Tara immediately sought it out again; hungry, thirsty for her. Willow let her lips be taken for another searing moment, then placed a hand on Tara’s cheek to stall again.


Tara’s eyes fluttered open in question and Willow paused to take in just how beautiful Tara looked with her lips bruised and skin flushed.


“I love you,” she said through a soft and awed inhalation of breath.


Her thumb brushed Tara’s cheekbone.


“I haven’t said it since that night…and I don’t want you to think I was just saying it to get out of something…I wanted to wait and say it again when you wouldn’t think I…”


She closed her eyes and shook her head, feeling a babble rise in her throat and threaten to ruin this moment.


“I love you,” she said again finally, surely.


Tara put a finger under Willow’s chin and guided their lips together softly.


“I love you too.”


Willow smiled against Tara’s mouth as it descended on hers again and she forgot everything but kissing the woman she loved.


Tara fell back again and took Willow with her this time.


Willow was hyper-aware of her naked skin scratching against Tara’s clothes but somehow it didn’t feel so terrifying anymore.


Lying with Tara; kissing, necking, giggling.


Just embracing the comfortable connection in their own private little world.


And it really had been awhile.


“We haven’t made out in forever,” Willow said as she stole another kiss and briefly curled her tongue behind Tara’s lips.


“I know,” Tara smiled with a soft laugh, then an even softer look, “And if you only want to make out, that’s okay.”


Willow paused. Tara was giving her an out if she wanted it.


She looked down at Tara and tried to remember how long it had actually been.


Tara’s Prom.


She remembered now.


How she’d almost ‘given in’ that night.


Remembered falling into her bedroom and locking the door to the empty house.


Keeping the lights off because she knew if she saw more than a flash of Tara’s face in the darkness she would have lost that knot of control she was holding onto in her stomach.


Letting Tara’s hand disappear up her dress and under her panties to give her that perfect moment where she was free of fear or insecurity or worry…


…and then she’d closed her eyes and fallen asleep because she’d wanted Tara too much too much to touch her back and there was too much else up in the air to let that part of her unravel.


Willow closed her eyes, back in the moment on the bridge, remembering Tara asking if she just wanted a friend that gets her off.


It had felt so harsh at the time, even after everything that had been said, but Willow saw it now. All of the untruths she’d allowed fester just to try and hide the real truth.


“All of the mistakes I’ve made,” she started, words coming without her planning them, ”None of them have been because I don’t want you.”


Tara curled some hair around Willow’s ear, comforting her as her voice took on a note of strain.


“I know.”


Willow swallowed deeply.


“I have to keep telling you because…I told you so different for so long. I have to know that you know.”


Tara’s hand trailed down Willow’s back and she felt the twitch in her spine and the way Willow shifted in microscopic movements to keep their skin touching.


“I stayed,” she said, keeping Willow’s gaze locked on hers, “Because even when your head denied…your body never did. And I knew you’d catch up. You were never one to fall behind for long.”


She smiled but Willow gulped again and felt Tara’s hand curve on her cheek.


“Darling,” she said gently; a tone so loving Willow didn’t think she’d ever experienced from anyone ever before or ever would again, “Don’t be afraid.”


Willow slowly smiled; the most real smile to grace her face in a long time, a lifetime.


“I’m not,” she said through a single, heavy breath, “I want you.”


Tara curled her fingers around the back of Willow’s neck and pulled her that last inch down until their faces were touching.


“Then you better hurry up and undress me so you can come get me.”


Willow felt arousal spill from her and she would have been embarrassed had she not been so stunned. Tara placed a finger straight under Willow’s chin to close her mouth and it snapped Willow’s attention forward.


She caught the hem of Tara’s tank and pushed it up under her breasts. Tara’s tattoo peeked out, so striking against her creamy skin. Willow ran a finger over the clef and brushed against the underside of Tara’s breast. Tara lifted her arms over her head and let them rest in a circular shape on the pillows.


Willow was panting slightly in anticipation as she peeled Tara’s top up and over her head.


She actually knew Tara’s breasts quite well, by touch.


It wasn’t gay if she only pawed at them and didn’t look, you see.


Clothing cocooned confession.


God, she felt like an idiot.


Especially because despite knowing the curve of Tara’s breast in her palm and how her nipple tightened under her thumb, she was not prepared for the full slight beneath her. They were bigger than she could tell by touch or scattered glances of cleavage. She couldn’t feel more than what could fit in her hand, she supposed.


More surprising was the color of Tara’s pigment where her areolae swelled up to her nipples. She hadn’t really considered that anyone would look anything different to her own lightly blushed pink nipples, but Tara’s were a dark purple and covered a larger expanse of skin.


She felt an immediate oral fixation; her mouth actually watered at the thought of taking them between her lips.


Her hands slid down Tara’s chest and cupped each breast fully. Tara’s back lightly arched into the touch and Willow gasped at that subtle display of desire. She rolled Tara’s stiff nipples in the space between her fingers and watched Tara’s face flutter with pleasure as did so; teeth lightly digging into her bottom lip and nostrils flaring in perfect sync to when Willow pinched her fingers together.


Watching Tara’s face when she touched her had always been Willow’s guilty pleasure, but now she felt the pedal swing entirely from the ‘guilty’ end to the ‘pleasure’ end.


“You are so beautiful.”


Tara’s eyes settled on Willow’s, glassy and dark, and Willow was suddenly desperate to get Tara’s shorts off and remove that last barrier between them. It was a move a long time coming, much longer than her stripping off and kissing Tara’s neck.


She wasn’t sure what made her do it, but she scratched Tara’s stomach muscles lightly on the way and made Tara’s hips jerk right off the bed. A short groan left Tara’s lips and rang in Willow’s ears, reverberating straight between her legs and only adding to the absolute pool forming there.


She didn’t know how it wasn’t gushing down her legs; it felt like a dam ready to burst.


She curled her fingers beneath the elastic waistband of Tara’s shorts but just before giving that final tug, she looked up at Tara for confirmation.


“Yeah?” she asked breathlessly.


Tara’s chin hit her chest so she could meet Willow’s eye. One messy eyebrow arched on her sweaty brow.


“Are you joking?”


A giggle rose in Willow’s throat and burst out, lighting up her whole face.


Tara lifted a hand and cupped Willow’s cheek.


“You are so beautiful when you smile.”


She brushed her thumb over Willow’s lips and dropped her hand while lifting her hips from the bed again. Willow swallowed to put a little moisture back in her mouth before dragging the shorts down and off Tara’s legs.


Tara bent her knees together and back to help and then let her legs fall open in a V around Willow.


Heart pounding anew, Willow took in Tara’s body; the very thing she’d been so afraid to embrace for so long.


It was terrifying but only in that she could lose this.


Lose her.


She laid down on top of Tara, their hips touching first and then their chests before the final sublime slide of limbs where they got the first press of each other between their legs.


“Oh god,” Willow breathed, her head falling into Tara’s neck to plant wet, open-mouth kisses there as the barest brush of Tara’s thigh made her quiver all over.


She suddenly became overwhelmed by the prospect in front of her. Her lips had never trailed deeper than the swell of Tara’s breast and she didn’t know if what she desired to do was what Tara desired her to do.


Her mouth stalled on Tara’s throat when she felt her larynx protrude on a deep swallow and she slowly pulled her head away.


Tara kept her neck tilted for a few moments until the lack of contact became noticeable. Her eyes opened and head turned to the other side to see Willow frozen.


“Hey…” she said softly, brushing her fingers on Willow’s cheek.


Willow averted her gaze, embarrassed.


“I-I don’t know what to do.”


Tara just smiled softly.


“Me either. We’ll figure it out.”


Willow’s eyebrows rose as if to say ‘really?’ and Tara’s index finger gently tickled under Willow’s ear affectionately.


“Do you remember when we were young and we were playing Twister with Donny? Remember he bet us our allowance he could beat us and if he didn’t he’d leave us alone for a week?”


Willow stared in confusion for a moment. This wasn’t the most optimal time to rehash a childhood memory.


Still, the words triggered the images and Donny breaking the spinner right off the board when he lost.


She nodded that she remembered and Tara smiled fondly.


“He thought he had it all sewed up because we were too young to realize that having two people just hurt our chances. One of us was more likely to fall over the other.”


She twirled a strand of Willow’s hair in that finger and gave it a light tug that Willow found surprisingly arousing.


“But we took our time and we were careful and we twisted our bodies together until he had nowhere left to go but down and we anchored each other up. We figured out how to get our bodies to move together and come…out on top.”


Willow felt Tara’s knee bend and her outer thigh be caressed with Tara’s inner one.


“This is like that…but with kisses.”


Willow’s anxieties fluttered away; even if she wasn’t confident she felt in very good hands.


“And boobs,” she joked; Tara’s resulting smile filling her with the confidence she was lacking.


She made a spinner board in her mind and mentally spun it, but there was only one answer her brain was going to return; what she’d wanted since the moment Tara’s top came off.


Left nipple, mouth.


She met Tara’s eye and smiled shyly.


“Can I?” she asked, referring to nothing and everything all at once.


Tara returned the same smile.


“I’m yours.”


Willow pressed her lips to Tara’s lips softly, then ducked her head lower to Tara’s chest.


She pressed kisses in concentric circles around Tara’s breast until she got to the where the skin puckered and swelled. She could see how taut Tara’s skin was pulled together and it felt so natural now to close her lips around it and soothe it with her tongue.


Tara moaned and her skin just seemed to grow even tighter and strain for more touch. Willow found that reaction fascinating and enticing and was quite willing to give what was asked.


Tara's chest heaved as each breath became more and more labored.


She’d dreamed of this so many times.


When Willow would stop just short; when she was alone in the dark; when she would lick the pad of her finger and pinch herself in the hopes that it might just satisfy that craving for the sensation she did not know, yet yearned for.


Willow’s mouth was hot and wet and reminded her of how she felt between her spread legs. She imagined Willow’s mouth touching her there the way it was touching her now and she was sure she must’ve left a wet patch on the sheet such was the strength of her reaction.


Unable to be so passive with the massive thumping between her legs, she cupped each of Willow’s shoulder blades, gripping her with four fingertips digging into Willow’s back and her thumb pressing into collarbone on the other side. She massaged those spots a few times, digging into Willow’s skin in time with the twitches of her clit, then gently tugged Willow back up and kissed her.


Willow’s brow creased; worried she’d done something wrong.


“That was so good,” Tara whispered between kisses before Willow could even ask the question, “I want yours.”


She put Willow onto her back and sat back to look at her. Willow might have felt self-conscious only she was too busy looking at Tara too. She ran her hands down Tara’s side and held her by the hips.


Her hand pressed flat over Tara’s bellybutton with the heel of her palm brushing against the hair on Tara’s mound. Before she could process the molten wave she felt inside her as she caressed Tara’s skin, she watched Tara’s head drop to her breasts and felt lips close around her nipple.


“Oh!”


She was surprised by how intense her belly burned as Tara’s tongue ran around her. Her nipples had never been that sensitive to her, never an area she lingered when by herself, but Tara’s mouth was something else entirely and she felt a correspondingly intense responsive twitch in her clit.


Tara’s mouth left her and even in the warm room, she felt a chill hit it and highlight the loss. Tara didn’t leave her hanging in desperation though, as two fingers reached up to twist the peak as her mouth landed on the other side.


Willow felt her breath catch in her throat at the duality of sensation and if she looked down she’d see her chest had become a bright red.


Tara’s palm rolled around her breast and squeezed her flesh and Willow thought, hoped, there might be little nail marks left in her skin; something that left Tara’s brand on her and marked her in the way she’d been so afraid to until now.


Tara felt Willow’s body writhe into her, so willing and wanting and open in a way she just never had been before. It went beyond the lack of clothing, Willow was expressive and eager and giving herself over entirely. It was on a plane Tara had never even known before.


The music was still playing; Massive Attack she thought now.


She’d never been in charge of this playlist mostly because they usually did ‘stuff’ in Willow’s house. Willow was the one who seemed to need more sound in the room when they were getting hot and heavy anyway. Though Tara did have ideas for melodic enhancement to these moments, she actually liked to listen in other ways.


For Tara, her music was how the susurration of the sheet echoed in her ear as Willow’s body wiggled and squirmed; how the headboard banged lightly off the wall when Willow’s torso lifted and dropped sharply back into mattress, driving it backward; when Willow's head rose and her neck strained back and made the pillows deflate with a whoosh.


All of this still paled in comparison to the symphony of sounds Willow herself was making; the low moans, the sharp gasps, even the slap of thighs as her legs grew straight and pressed together to try and quell the pounding between them.


Tara had played in front of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of people in the band, as part of orchestras, even busking on the street but nothing was as exhilarating; nothing made the hair on the back of her neck rise with more intensity than playing Willow’s body to the best of her ability.


Her hand rolled over Willow’s breast one last time and started to slide across the expanse of her stomach. She felt Willow’s muscles jump and then a tremble as her fingers brushed past Willow’s mound. She tapped her fingers there as a tickle of anticipation before sliding between Willow’s lips.


Willow moaned, but it turned into a deep groan when Tara moaned too, around her nipple. Her hips twisted and Tara’s fingers slid down more, pressing against her opening for the first time ever.


“Oh shit,” Willow gasped before a whimper fell out of her mouth when two of Tara’s fingers slid back up over her clit.


Tara left Willow’s nipple as a taut, wet nub that made her hiss with pleasure when the friction of Tara’s body ran over. Tara made a point of slowly returning to fully alignment with Willow. With her hand still sliding over Willow’s clit, Tara pressed their mouths together again and felt a string of words and wordless moans fall down her throat.


She toyed with Willow’s tongue and felt a shiver go down her spine when Willow grabbed her cheeks with both hands and kissed her back so desperately.


Two fingers sank deeper again and really toyed with Willow's opening this time, both of them twitching with anticipation. Willow was slick and Tara could already feel an even deeper heat enticing her inward.


She paused with her forehead on Willow’s and waited until their eyes connected. She raised her eyebrows slightly in question and Willow quickly nodded, her face flushed.


Tara pressed her fingers into Willow’s opening; barely inside, just to the length of her short nails, a half-knuckle. It was like rubbing against silk but so much hotter, a heat Tara just wanted more of.


She slid her fingers up more, maybe a little too quickly, and felt Willow stretch around her.


Willow’s face scrunched and she took in a sharp breath as she processed this new sensation.


“Oh, ah! Mmm…”


Tara’s cheeks immediately drained of their color and her hand snapped back, earning a smarting clench from Willow who immediately missed the intrusion.


“I’m s-s-so sorry,” Tara stammered, her throat tightening like she was about to throw up.


Willow gasped with the ache of the loss; though the despairing look on Tara’s face hurt her much more.


“You did nothing wrong!” Willow said quickly, waving her hands in front of her wildly. “It’s my fault, I’m not—”


“No, absolutely not, I…” Tara started to interrupt, but Willow stopped her with a hand on the shoulder.


“You didn’t hurt me,” she said, staring Tara in the eye to make sure she heard her, “You didn’t. I was just surprised, I…I didn’t know how it would feel. ”


She squeezed Tara’s shoulder and her hips rolled toward Tara again. Her voice lowered an octave.


“I don’t want to stop. I wanna try again,” she said, evocative and sure, before she smiled a little, “Maybe just slower.”


Tara closed her eyes, exhaling two short breaths.


“I should have known that. I never asked you if you’d ever…”


She shook her head and quite a few thoughts flew into Willow’s head but she focused on coaxing Tara back into the moment.


“It’s okay. C’mere.”


She sought Tara’s lips and only had to wait a second until the kiss was returned. She felt Tara’s hand touch her cheek, her fingers wet from her brief quest inside. Willow caught her own scent and her stomach churned with arousal. She wondered if Tara smelled the same.


She turned her head and kissed Tara’s fingertip as they sped past before Tara began to disappear back down her body.


Willow’s eyes fluttered closed again as she felt Tara’s hands fall over the curves and peaks of her body back down to her thighs. Willow opened her legs again in anticipation of Tara’s hand finishing its journey there, and so was surprised when instead she felt a mouth seep into her wetness.


“Whoa-oh!” she gasped, followed immediately by a long groan as Tara’s tongue licked her length.


Her legs fell open completely, helplessly. Never had she known something to pull from her and fill her all at once but Tara was doing it and doing it so well.


Tara found herself swallowing again and again and she couldn’t even tell whether it was from the amount of wetness Willow was producing or just how much her mouth watered for it. She’d known Willow’s scent but never close like this, never so deep in her nostrils that it made her brain hazy. Her taste on top was the definition of intoxication and Tara couldn’t stop herself from imbibing.


Willow groaned and moaned and writhed as her body asked for more and more. The clenching inside her just became more and more intense as she craved that feeling of completion she’d briefly flirted with.


“Tara, I…” she moaned, pressing her hips high to meet Tara’s mouth over and over again, “I-I want it. I need it. You. Inside…Please…Oh, please…”


She wouldn’t have imagined herself one to beg but the pull inside her was so deep and unrelentingly empty.


Tara looked up and paused, her lips glistening. She sat up a bit and wiped her arm across her mouth before bringing her hand to Willow, cupping her.


Willow hissed with pleasure and Tara’s fingers were immediately hit with wetness. She, somewhat nervously, dipped her index finger at Willow’s opening, which was completely gushing at this point.


She pushed in very gently to the first knuckle and faced no resistance.


“Is that okay?” she asked, watching Willow very carefully for signs of discomfort.


She felt Willow squeeze her finger; once, then twice and both of their eyelids grew lidded.


“Yeah…” Willow sighed, her hips dragging right back against the sheet, “More.”


Tara wanted it just as much, wanted to feel everything Willow’s depths had to offer.


“Are you sure?”


Willow nodded quickly and found her hand twisting in the sheet as Tara’s second finger stretched her, but so deliciously this time.


“God, yes, Tara!”


Encouraged, Tara began to gently move her fingers in and out and used her expertise in time-keeping to find the rhythm Willow was setting instead of trying to control it herself.


It was a sight to watch Willow unravel; so uninhibited to how she’d ever been before. She’d always hid a little when she came, obscuring her face in the pillow or Tara’s neck but now her whole body was as open as it could be and losing itself in Tara’s touch.


When she was confident her fingers were only pleasing Willow and not adding any pain, she figured out how to angle herself again to return her mouth to Willow’s throbbing clit.


She felt Willow’s thighs tremble when she did so and suddenly she was like a volcano inside; gushing and red-hot and overflowing.


A new sound joined the Willow symphony, a higher pitched cry which Tara realized after a moment was peppered with words.


Words she did not understand but recognized.


It almost sounded like listening to Willow read the Torah at her Bat Mitzvah.


She looked up to try and reconcile what she was hearing but was distracted watching Willow’s back arch and her breasts thrust upward so invitingly. She reached up with her second hand and palmed one breast; the groan it produced only making her wetter. She couldn’t focus on herself right now though, so she released Willow’s breast and let her hand settle on Willow’s stomach.


She massaged there and felt Willow start to jerk, teetering right on the very edge. She watched Willow’s hand twist and turn in the sheet until her knuckles were white, then her fingers curl under themselves. She slid her hand off Willow’s stomach and moved it up the sheet, linking her fingers with Willow’s.


Willow’s fingers caught her and squeezed her tight just as her inner muscles did at the exact same time and released all the way down Tara’s wrist.


Tara didn’t dare move, nor could she really, because Willow had her held down on all sides. She slowed her mouth and just rested her lips on Willow as she caught her own breath and felt Willow catching hers.


When Willow relaxed her grip, Tara slowly withdrew from all quarters and lifted herself back above Willow’s body. Her eyes were closed so Tara just pecked Willow’s lips and lay down beside her.


She was sweaty, though not as sweaty as Willow’s glistening body. And she was wet, though not as wet as Willow’s glistening lips, still engorged between her legs.


Though with a minimal movement of her own thighs chafing, Tara thought she may very well be just as wet as Willow, but with no satiation.


At least, of a physical kind. She was definitely very satisfied by knowing the feeling of Willow’s heartbeat around her fingers; from hearing the cries that had fallen from Willow’s mouth, coming from a place deep inside that Tara had never reached before; from seeing her spent body thrown back on the bed still catching the breath Tara had pulled from her.


That was definitely satisfying.


Extremely.


After a few minutes of processing everything on her side, she glanced over to Willow, whose eyes were open again, staring up at the ceiling in silent contemplation.


Tara felt a moment of panic rise in her throat, but she pushed it back down. If Willow was panicking too, her adding to it wasn’t going to help things.


She slowly shifted onto her side, holding the sheet up against her chest and casually throwing the other side over Willow.


Willow didn’t really react and Tara swallowed deeply.


“Willow, did I hurt you?”


Willow blinked several times as she turned her gaze to Tara as if remembering she wasn’t alone in the room.


“No, no,” she said evenly, shaking her head from side to side, “Not at all.”


Tara exhaled a gentle breath of relief.


“Are you okay?” she asked softly, “It’s okay if you feel weird. We can talk about it.”


Willow stared at Tara for several moments, taking in each delicate feature on her face. She blinked twice more, heavy lids that closed for more than a second each time and released a breath that made her shoulders slump back gently into the mattress.


“I feel like I’ve felt weird my entire life…and this is the first thing that feels completely right.”


Tara slowly smiled and Willow returned it, then suddenly became very aware of her own body again and the lingering sensations running through her.


“Okay, it’s definitely a little weird that you were just inside me,” she reasoned, brow scrunching adorably as she looked down at herself, “And that I’m totally naked right now.”


“It would have been kind of hard to do if you weren’t,” Tara replied innocently.


Willow’s eyebrows rose considerably, then a bigger smile broke out on her face and she began to laugh convulsively. After a few seconds, her legs jumped together under the sheet and she smiled sheepishly.


“Oh-kay, new muscles.”


Tara’s hand disappeared under the sheet and moments later settled on Willow’s tummy and rubbed gently.


“You okay?”


Willow looked at Tara like she was the moon and the stars.


“I’m wonderful.”


Tara moved her head down to rest on the pillow beside Willow.


“I think so too.”


Willow saw the truth in Tara’s eyes and felt the tenderness in her belly rub and knew she was the safest she had ever been.


Tara kissed Willow’s eyelids and bridge of her nose and trailed off at her ear.


“I love you,” she whispered.


Willow nuzzled her nose against Tara’s cheek and left soft kisses there. Before she could return the sentiment, Tara spoke again.


“Can I ask you something?”


Willow nodded and willed her legs to shift from their jelly-like state so she could comply with whatever request Tara made of her.


And oh wow, she was going to do whatever Tara asked of her. There was definitely an awakening somewhere but she was going to need it to press pause for a moment because—


“Were you speaking in Hebrew?”


Willow did a double-take as she shifted from her own thoughts to Tara’s question.


“Wh-what?”


“When I was…” Tara paused and looked bashful, “Um, it sounded like you were speaking Hebrew.”


Willow shut her eyes tight and tried to remember. Tara was…and then she…yep. Her eyes sprung open, wide.


“Yeah, I have no idea where that came from.”


“Oh,” Tara replied, nodding along, “Okay.”


“My dad would be proud,” Willow joked, then pulled a disgusted face, “Not that I will ever tell him.”


She reached up and tucked some hair behind her own ear shyly.


“It’s um, a prayer, a blessing. We say it to celebrate special occasions…for being thankful for new experiences.”


She cast a furtive glance at Tara to gauge her reaction, but Tara just looked back casually.


“Most people just say ‘oh god’.”


Willow was sure she could see the smirk tugging Tara’s lips into a crooked smile, but all she could focus on was the glint in Tara’s eye, the new flicker of untamed passion and it made her feel wild.


She splayed her fingers out on the back of Tara’s neck and drew them close.


“Do you?” she asked, with only a brief moment of stammering in her words when she felt Tara’s hot breath hit her lips.


Tara felt her stomach clench as she allowed herself to feel the thumping between her legs again.


“Why don’t you find out?”


Willow’s eyes clouded with arousal and she tugged Tara that last quarter inch into a kiss.


Her legs behaved themselves as she rolled onto her side and coaxed Tara down onto her back. She pulled Tara’s bottom lip into her mouth and released it before quickly popping kisses down into Tara’s neck. Her hand found a pert breast and her lips felt the inhalation of breath on Tara’s throat when she closed her hand around it and brushed the nipple.


She started to kiss down Tara’s body, finding the temperature of Tara’s skin to increase the lower she got. Just below Tara’s bellybutton, she found her hands sliding on Tara’s thighs and could feel all the wetness spilling out. She felt her heart start to hammer.


It wasn’t that she was unfamiliar with the area in question. She knew where Tara’s coarse hair became slick skin; exactly where the bump in Tara’s flesh lay and exactly how to engorge it; knew what it felt like to make Tara wet but already this was so different.


She was used to her hand disappearing under Tara’s clothing, sight unseen. She was used to her hand being trapped there with only a limited amount of movements possible. She was used to Tara’s arousal being contained but here she was, on display and overwhelming every one of her senses.


She kissed above Tara’s stomach, her lips slowing.


After a minute or so, Tara brought Willow’s head back up to her and kissed her softly.


Willow felt Tara’s hand on her cheek, thumb caressing her cheekbone and opened her eyes to see Tara looking at her, unassuming and patient.


Willow relaxed a little; it was comforting to have someone just get you and what you need.


“I still don’t know what to do,” she admitted.


That wasn’t strictly true, she knew what to do.


It wasn’t like she hadn’t fantasized about this plenty of times.


She knew the mechanics and she’d also just experienced Tara turning her on and letting the faucet of pleasure overflow through her.


That was the real problem; she didn’t think she could make Tara feel how Tara had made her feel.


“What you always do…what you want to do…what feels right…all of the above.”


Tara’s smile was so genuine and soothing, Willow felt herself calm down a little.


She could start with the first one.


Her hand moved diagonally from Tara’s thigh and her fingertips sunk between her lips.


“Wow,” she whispered as her fingers began to glide so easily.


Instantly wet, she brought them back over Tara’s clit with ease. Tara’s body shuddered, a shudder Willow knew; a shudder Willow loved because she knew she was doing something right.


She repeated the movement as she had so many times before, but it was so much more this time. She could hear her fingers as they moved, could feel the skin on Tara’s thighs as they quaked, could smell Tara’s arousal as it permeated the air.


As Willow got faster, her fingers would fall lower and lower on each downward slide as she struggled to maintain friction with Tara gushing more and more arousal with every passing second. On a particularly slippery push, three fingertips lightly flicked Tara’s inner wall right at her opening.


Willow gasped and quickly balled her hand into a fist, while Tara moaned and tried to push into the touch that was now gone.


Willow watched Tara’s face and listened to her moans and had to make a decision.


Want to…feels right…okay, here I go.


She brought her fingers back down there and ventured inside, just one this time. The sensation was mind-blowing and the sounds coming from Tara as she moved in and out felt just as good as when Tara was touching her.


Except the music was still playing and muffling some of those noises and that was not okay.


As much as she liked Prince, he was not making her feel like a sexy motherfucker.


She reached out with her other hand and popped the phone from the speaker.


“Do you mind if I shut that off? It’s drowning out the good stuff,” she gushed, then blushed, “Um, I mean, y’know…”


“I do know,” Tara breathed, smirking lightly but with her eyes also silently pleading not to stop.


Willow saw it and pushed in with two fingers, slowly. It wasn’t a stretch at all really but she studied Tara’s face just in case.


“Okay?”


“Oh yes,” Tara moaned.


Willow tried to use her other hand to rub Tara’s clit while she moved in and out but it was a bit of a ‘rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time’ kind of situation and she couldn’t quite pull it off.


She looked down at the way her hand was moving and after a minute or two of watching hypnotically as she disappeared inside, she let her fingers slide all the way out and up to rub before plunging back inside.


That really seemed to get Tara going, her back arching and body twisting as her unstifled moans were rising toward the ceiling.


There was a rising inside Tara too, that beautiful swell that was growing below her stomach and was just a few well-timed thrusts away from imploding. She rolled her hips harder as sweat broke out on her brow and she strained for what her body wanted so badly.


Willow felt Tara get so hot she thought the flesh might actually melt off her fingers but it only made her dig in more. She thought, too late, that that might be a bit too rough, but instead felt Tara immediately come around her.


Willow’s hand was trapped again as Tara’s thighs clamped together but it was a cage she’d never fight to flee.


“Wow,” she whispered in awe, almost entirely inaudibly as Tara pulsated and contracted and made Willow feel as close to heaven as she ever had been.


Or at least a level draw with when their positions had been reversed.


She stayed there as long as she could, then pulled her hand away, looking at it like something so profound had changed that would never be the same.


She would never be the same.


She curled her fingers into her palm and though they were soaked, she had no concern with wiping them like the first time she’d ventured beneath Tara’s panties. She was very content with letting Tara absorb into her skin.


She lay back down beside Tara and watched the gentle heave of her chest settle peacefully. When Tara’s eyes opened, she reached out lazily to brush her fingers on Willow’s cheek.


“You felt good.”


And Willow just laughed, because that felt like the understatement of the century. She turned her head and kissed Tara’s fingertips.


“You felt so good.”


She leaned in and kissed Tara’s cheek and found her arm curving around Tara’s waist. She needed to stay close.


She was almost asleep when she felt Tara start to shuffle.


“It’s so hot in here. I’m going to open the balcony door.”


“No, don’t!” Willow exclaimed, shooting up suddenly, then looking sheepish when Tara raised an eyebrow, “I um…I like the heat.”


She didn’t care for the heat, actually. At home she always kept a cool room, preferring to add a blanket if needed rather than be uncomfortably warm.


Tara knew this, of course, so figured out immediately that Willow didn’t mean the heat, she meant their heat; that heaviness in the air that was thick with their combined scents and the energy they’d expended.


“Okay,” she agreed easily.


Willow started to look guilty.


“Never mind, if you’re too hot—”


Tara put a finger against Willow’s lips.


“I have never been more perfect than I am at this moment.”


Her finger trailed down Willow’s jaw and off her chin. Willow started to duck her head to rest on Tara’s shoulder, but it popped back up at the last second. She bit the corner of her lip shyly.


“Was that okay?”


And now it was Tara’s turn to laugh at the understatement.


“It was so much more than okay.”


She held her hand up and Willow linked their fingers and settled back with her arm over Tara’s waist, conjoined hands at her hip. Her cheek rested on Tara’s shoulder and the rest of her body naturally curled around Tara. One leg was thrown between Tara’s to tangle their limbs together and never had she felt so comfortable to just melt into another body.


Never had she felt so little anxiety about…this.


Or anything.


There was nothing in the world but the simple curve of Tara’s ankle around hers.


She watched herself wiggle her toes against Tara’s and smiled when Tara did it back.


Tara couldn’t help but think in the silence.


“Did you ever imagine it could ever be like this?”


Willow sighed softly.


“Only in my weakest moments.”


A smile graced Tara’s lips, one that didn’t quite reach her eyes but stayed on her face, contemplative.


“Funny. Thinking this could be true were some of my strongest.”


Willow frowned, also contemplatively.


After another stretch of silence, she spoke up quietly, almost so low Tara wouldn’t hear only there were so close and there wasn’t another sound in the room.


“I don’t know why you put up with me sometimes.”


“Oh, Willow,” Tara sighed sadly.


She sat up, which made Willow frown more because she had been enjoying the cuddling immensely.


Tara pulled her hair into a ponytail, then let go, letting it all fall around her shoulders again. She turned to face Willow and caressed her neck tenderly.


“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,” she said emphatically with a pointed look, “That’s why.”


Willow tucked some hair behind her own ear again and forced a smile.


“I didn’t know this is what they meant when they said to know someone biblically.”


Tara knew a Willow-deflect when she heard one but it wasn’t the time to smother Willow out of her insecurities. At least not verbally. She opened her arms and gestured Willow into them, kissing her on top of her head when she settled.


“C’mere.”


She closed her arms around Willow’s middle and let them hang loosely and rested her chin over Willow’s shoulder.


Willow sighed happily and started running her fingers through Tara’s fingers. She lifted Tara’s hand and followed the lines on her palm.


“How are your hands so soft and smooth when you play so much?”


“I take care of them,” Tara explained, “Moisturize…file.”


Willow nodded, then stopped suddenly.


“Wait, you file your nails or your fingers?!”


Tara curled her fingers into a ‘C’ shape and ran her thumb over them to show Willow.


“There’s little calluses there, they help me play guitar. I keep them as small as I can,” she said, dropping her hand to rub them against Willow’s thigh, “I don’t want to miss out on the feeling of touching… other things.”


Willow felt a new tingling start at the base of her spine and turned her head in to kiss Tara’s neck.


“You’re a badass.”


Tara chuckled and she may as well have done it around Willow’s clit for how much it turned Willow on.


“I was always jealous of how well you played, you know,” she said, changing gear in the hopes her body might calm down and she wouldn’t reveal herself to be an insatiable fiend, “But I am just not gifted in the musical arts. As you know.”


Tara smiled at the memory.


“I liked teaching you guitar. I would have kept doing it, but you wouldn’t.”


Willow shook her wrist out in front of her.


“I got my hand stuck in the, the…”


“Soundhole,” Tara provided, but Willow just frowned.


“Don’t dumb down the terms for me.”


Tara smiled again.


“That’s really what it’s called, honey.”


“Oh,” Willow replied sheepishly, “Well, anyway. I’m glad I found out at the ripe old age of 10 and that my parents bore witness and never forced me to take lessons in anything else.”


Tara’s hand ran down Willow’s arm and took her hand, holding it by her stomach. She then took Willow’s other hand and held it higher, positioning both as if she was holding an invisible guitar. She used her fingers to move Willow’s fingers in the right motions to ‘play’.


“I remember you being quite good at the… fingering,” she said in a low voice right in Willow’s ear, which she then dropped to an even lower whisper, “You’ve only gotten better.”


Willow felt her stomach bottom right out and quickly turned in Tara’s lap.


“Okay, yep.”


“What?” Tara asked in confusion and surprise.


Willow took Tara’s face in her hands and pulled her forward.


“Now, you c’mere.”


Tara allowed herself to be pulled into a kiss and then pulled under Willow’s body and then pulled beneath the sheet so Willow could pull another orgasm right out of her.


With a fresh layer of sweat cooling on their bodies, both heads popped out, hair tousled and cheeks red.


“Water,” Willow gasped, trying desperately to lick her lips.


Tara raised her head just an inch off the pillow and looked around aimlessly.


“Where?”


Willow frowned and cast a hazy eye around her room. She spotted her backpack on the floor at the foot of the bed and sluggishly turned herself around to reach for it. She had to keep shuffling forward until she almost fell right off, but then felt Tara’s hand close around her ankle. Willow grabbed the bag, shuffled back and threw herself alongside Tara again.


“Teamwork,” she said, holding her hand out for a high five before she unzipped the bag and produced the bottle of water from the bottom.


As she downed the liquid down her grateful, parched throat, Tara looked over her shoulder to the other contents in the bag.


“Are those chips?”


Willow passed the water over and dug out the bag Tara was referring to.


“Pitta chips!” she said victoriously, reaching in for a tub poking out, “WITH pesto hummus.”


Tara glugged some water and wiped her mouth with her arm.


“Oh if I didn’t love you before…”


Willow giggled and cracked open both the chips and the dip. They both dug in with plenty of hunger and little grace but neither cared.


“This is so unattractive,” Tara said, using her hand to cover her mouth so she wouldn’t expel anything she was enthusiastically chewing on.


“I don’t even care,” Willow replied, doing the exact same thing.


They both looked at each other and giggled, the smiles exchanged through their eyes if not their covered mouths.


When Willow had finished chewing, she wiped at her mouth and leaned over for another kiss on Tara’s cheek.


“I love you.”


Tara caught Willow’s hand between them and squeezed it.


“I love you too.”


Her fingers brushed over Willow’s knuckles and god help her if Willow didn’t feel something bloom again.


She felt like a broken faucet; any minor touch had her overflowing everywhere.


With just enough cognizance to get the chips and dip off the bed so they weren’t rolling around in a basil-y mess, she launched herself at Tara again and was met with a quite willing response.


Many hours later, with the room in darkness but for slivers of light breaking through the curtains, they lay in a tangled heap of limbs and sheets, passed out together.


Tara was the first to stir to a pattering noise somewhere in the distance. She raised her head from the pillow, which she quickly realized was Willow’s breast and enjoyed a moment of staring before moving her gaze away.


She brought her hands up to rub her eyes and gently stretched, trying to avoid too much motion that might wake Willow.


Her body felt odd — like she’d run a marathon but had also just gotten a thorough post-run massage. Muscles worn out but relaxed and an echo of past exertions aching deliciously in one place in particular. It was like a pleasure hangover but she enjoyed the dizziness.


Everything felt full; her breasts, her heart, her…oh, her bladder.


She carefully tried to extract herself without waking Willow and thought she got away with it as she slid off the bed and hurried toward the bathroom, holding the sheet to her chest with the rest of it trailing behind her.


Willow woke as the sheet scurried past her legs and then heard the click of the bathroom door closing. It took a moment, but just a moment, to put that together with the empty bed and figure out where Tara was gone, but that moment was a sick feeling that this had all been a dream.


But then she smelled Tara’s vanilla-y scent on the pillow and she knew it was real. She glanced down at herself in the dark and wondered if her body looked more womanly. She felt more womanly, whatever that meant.


The bathroom door opened again and Tara crept into the room. Willow watched her walk over to the curtain with raised eyebrows. Not even the cover of darkness could stop her noticing Tara’s round butt staring back at her. As Tara peeked out of the curtain, a ray of light shone in and hit her like a perfect halo.


Willow could only nod silently in agreement with the early sun.


She picked up on the same sound that had woken Tara and noticed little droplets on the sliver of glass that was exposed.


“Is it raining?”


Tara jumped, dropping the sheet and quickly bent to pick it up again with a blush.


“You’re awake.”


“Mm-hmm,” Willow replied, smirking at the flash she got.


Tara pulled one half of the curtain back, enough to let the light in and show Willow it was bucketing down outside.


“Yes, it’s raining. Pouring, in fact.”


It was Willow’s turn to blush as the stream of light that came in very much focused on exactly where she was lying, and she suspected on purpose.


“Glad we’re not on the boat today,” she said, casually rolling onto her stomach, “There’s nothing planned for today at all actually…did you want to…do something?”


Tara leaned back and made a point of dragging her eyes down Willow’s body slowly.


“Well, there’s no point in going out just to get… wet.”


Willow was completely captivated by this new, bold tone Tara had adopted.


Being friends for so long, there had always been a certain comfortableness and familiarity between them, but Tara seemed to have a whole new self-assuredness and it made Willow tingle in all the right places.


She smirked.


“I guess we’ll have to entertain ourselves indoors.”


Tara smirked back and started to step toward the bed but stopped when Willow pointed at the door.


“Wait, put the Do Not Disturb sign up.”


“The what?” Tara asked, brow scrunching adorably.


“On the door there. The hanger that says ‘Do Not Disturb’. Just hang it outside,” Willow explained, “It’ll stop housekeeping from coming in at an… inopportune time.”


Plus Willow got to see a little more of Tara’s butt moving about.


Tara checked the things hanging off the inside of the door.


“I don’t see it.”


“Oh?” Willow asked innocently as if she hadn’t hung it there the day before already, “Check outside?”


Tara hid her body behind the door and pulled it open just enough to check if the sign was hanging off the outside doorknob before quickly closing the door again. She turned back with a blush.


“It’s there but I think the cleaning lady caught me.”


“You were just checking the sign,” Willow replied with a soft shrug, “She doesn’t have secret x-ray vision. She doesn’t know what we’re doing in here.”


She ran her palm over the sheet where Tara’s body had vacated.


“Or what we…should be doing.”


Tara crossed over to the bed in record time and slid back onto the under the sheet.


“And what’s that?”


Willow yanked some of the sheet Tara had wrapped around her body over her, tugging them together in the process.


“Sharing the sheet.”


She turned her head in and kissed Tara’s lips; both of them smiling against each other.


Tara started to lean over on top of Willow, but after she brushed her hand over Willow’s stomach, there was a squeal. Tara’s hand sprung back.


“What is it?”


Willow’s face bunched up in a grimace.


“I have to pee. Sorry!”


Tara could only chuckle.


“Go,” she said, lightly pushing Willow away as she slid off the sheet and scurried off into the bathroom.


When she was finished washing her hands she looked in the mirror and paused for a minute. She turned her head from side to side, then up and down and ran her hand down her neck.


She looked the same.


She sure as hell didn’t feel the same.


She tried to isolate the many feelings, physical and emotional, that poured through her and she realized her reflection was different. She was smiling.


Unconditionally, unreservedly smiling.


And she didn’t hate the person who was staring back.


She picked her toothbrush up from the sink and tossed it to her other hand, humming as she wet it and spread some toothpaste across the bristles.


Why'd it take so long to see the light? Seemed so wrong, but now it seems so right What a lady, what a night.


She quickly ran the toothbrush over her teeth to freshen her mouth for the copious activity she planned on doing with it. She rinsed and quickly splashed her face before returning to the bed, more comfortable with her nakedness than she’d ever been, even on her own.


“Sorry,” she apologized for the disruption, “Very unsexy.”


“I think you have a lovely voice,” Tara countered sweetly.


Willow hesitated with her legs almost on the bed.


“I meant the running off to pee,” she clarified, then blushed as she realized what Tara meant, “You heard that?”


“You peeing?” Tara asked with a raised eyebrow.


Willow shook her head.


“No, the—” she stopped and tensed her jaw to stop from talking, “I think I’m going to shut up now.”


Tara crept closer, smirking with a mixture of amusement and seduction.


“I think I might be able to help with that…”


The last word Willow would use to describe Tara was ‘predatory’ but there was no other word to describe the look in her eye as she climbed over Willow. Yet instead of feeling helpless, Willow willingly surrendered as Tara molded their bodies together and kissed the breath from her lungs.


Outside, the rain poured and poured, soaking the city.


Plants drank, puddles formed and most people grudgingly got on with their day tolerating the disruption, except for the inhabitants of room 1113 who focused all their attention to the dripping between each other’s thighs and not what was sliding down the window pane.


Tara lay upside down on the bed, chewing on a protein bar for dinner that had been rummaged from the bottom of her cabin bag when they’d run out of their supply of local snacks.


Willow’s feet were by her head and she couldn’t resist reaching one finger out to brush the sole of the nearest one. Willow’s feet immediately tucked in beneath her.


“Hey!”


Tara giggled.


“You have cute feet. I was just admiring.”


Willow turned around and threw her naked body alongside Tara.


“Your admiration felt a lot like tickling.”


“It’s my love language,” Tara countered, biting a peanut butter chip from the bar, unintentionally and effortlessly seductive.


She offered the end of her bar to Willow by holding it against her mouth and brushed her thumb against Willow’s lips as she pushed it inside.


Willow had to close her eyes because she probably would have choked if she tried to eat and look in Tara’s eyes as they were at that moment.


She’d spent the whole day watching them close-up and how they changed based on movement, or sound, or words, or stage of climax (that was her favorite bit to watch) and she didn’t think she’d ever reach a point where she wouldn’t find them fascinating.


She’d spent 15 years looking into the same pair of eyes almost every day and somehow they managed to be so comfortably familiar and newly thrilling all at once.


She felt Tara’s finger trail under her chin and down her throat right as she swallowed. It dipped into the hollow and Willow had no idea how Tara could be turning on again after everything they’d gotten up to in the past hour, the past several hours, the whole day and night.


It shouldn’t even be possible. Surely there was a point where it was enough, but she didn’t seem to be reaching it today.


Tara’s lips ghosted that same spot, lingering there for a moment before kissing back up to Willow’s mouth. She kissed the corner and gently turned Willow onto her back, letting her body roll on top before she finally quenched the mutual thirst for a kiss.


Willow’s hands ran from Tara’s scapula down her spine and took two handfuls of her butt. It still felt naughty but any residual weirdness was well and truly gone.


Her hands, Tara’s hands, mouth, teeth, thighs; it didn’t matter. Any part of Tara was welcome to touch any part of her and she considered it a personal mission to know Tara’s body in the way she knew her personality and humor and love.


Because, oh boy, did she know Tara’s love. She’d never appreciated it enough because she was so afraid to admit it even existed but even in just a few days of lifting the veil she’d become so aware of it, like an invisible security blanket that was always there but only now could she see it in all its glory and was able to hold on tighter.


She could also hold Tara’s ass tighter, and did, squeezing her buns and using the leverage to move Tara’s body gently on top of her.


The grinding got a little more intense and Willow’s hands ended up in Tara’s hair, pulling her closer and thrusting her hips upward.


Tara gripped Willow’s bucking hips and kept the them both locked together at the mouth as she sat back in the midst of the passionate kiss. She sat in the middle of the large bed and spread her legs outward, holding Willow in her lap with a leg tossed either side of Tara’s waist.


Willow could almost feel Tara burning between her legs from the close proximity, especially when Tara would lightly tug at her hips. Tara’s hand reached over and brushed over the hair at the apex of Willow’s thighs. Fingers dipped into her wetness and over her clit and Willow dropped a string of moans into Tara’s mouth.


She quickly dropped her hand between Tara’s legs and found her wet and ready and eager for her touch. She found Tara’s clit quickly and circled her fingertips back and forth, subconsciously taking on the same rhythm Tara was using on her. It worked, letting their arms slide without getting in each other’s way. They both had to scoot back together once or twice but they never broke the kiss, just smiling against each other when they had to make the little readjustments.


Willow started to come first, reducing her participation in the kiss to a few sharp breaths but only slowed completely for a few moments before resuming the pressure of her fingers so Tara could follow. It was only about a minute or so later that Tara shuddered into Willow’s neck and finally slumped forward.


Tara left a messy kiss on the side of Willow’s neck and moaned just under her earlobe.


“You’re so good at this.”


Willow shivered at the feel of Tara’s breath on her skin and sighed happily.


“I am?”


Tara left a light kiss below Willow’s ear, so light Willow thought she might have imagined it, and fell back onto the bed. Her head hit the pillows and her back did a perfect arch as her legs stayed open in a V around Willow.


“Mmhhm.”


Willow couldn’t help her eye being drawn down to Tara’s very open legs. Tara’s words echoed in her ears and she licked her lips.


“M-maybe I could—”


Suddenly there was a knock on the door, which came as a complete shock to the two of them who had forgotten that other people, or anything else in the world, also existed.


Tara looked at Willow to see if she knew who it was, but Willow just shook her head silently. Tara nodded in that direction.


“Go get it.”


“Why me?” Willow asked frowning.


“I can’t,” Tara explained.


Willow held up her hands in question.


“Why?”


Tara blushed, but it was coy.


“I can’t move, I just…”


“So did I!” Willow replied indignantly.


Tara lazily reached and brushed her hand against Willow’s outer thigh.


“You’re already halfway up, and you’re closer to the door…”


There was another knock and Willow sighed as she found her legs under her and quickly threw on the hotel robe as another knock rang out.


“I’m coming, I’m coming.”


“You were a minute ago,” Tara whispered, but Willow heard it and shot her a look.


Willow went to the door and only opened it enough to poke her head out, but Tara was quick to cover herself up with the sheet just in case.


A man stood on the other side, walkie-talkie in hand. Willow’s eyebrows lifted in anticipation.


“Hi.”


The man looked relieved and hooked his walkie back to his belt.


“We’re just doing a welfare check, ma’am. We do it on all rooms with the do not disturb sign up for an extended period. Is everything okay?”


Willow knew her blush would be all too evident under those harsh hotel lights.


“Uh huh. All good.”


He just nodded, relieved there was no mess to clean up. He held up his hand as she began to walk away.


“Sorry to bother you, ma’am.”


“No problem,” Willow replied in a high-pitched voice, slamming the door closed again quickly.


She leaned back against it and smirked at Tara’s hasty attempt to cover up. She returned to bed, dropped her robe and climbed over Tara.


“I’m just holding a girl hostage and rendering her immobile through a series of…” she stopped, embarrassed, then grew more embarrassed at her own embarrassment, “Um…kisses. And…”


“Kisses,” Tara echoed, pressing her lips to Willow’s softly, just for a moment, “And…?”


Willow collapsed beside Tara and scurried under the sheet with her.


“This kinda…”


“Love?” Tara suggested.


“Love,” Willow agreed with a slow smile, “I kinda forgot the real world existed.”


“Me too,” Tara replied, finding Willow’s hand under the sheet and linking their fingers.


She leaned her head down against Willow’s shoulder and Willow turned her head in to kiss the top of Tara’s head.


“I’m starving,” Tara said, briefly running her hand over her stomach before lifting her chin up to smile at Willow, “But I’m not leaving this bed for anything.”


She pecked Willow’s lips again and then her nose scrunched up.


“Well, just for a minute.”


She smiled softly and scooted out of bed to go into the bathroom. When she came out a few minutes later, Willow was checking her phone.


“Oh, now the real world really is back,” Tara said with a wry smile as she joined Willow in bed.


Willow placed the phone screen-down on the sheet.


“Sorry.”


“It’s fine,” Tara replied as she snuggled in, “What’s happening on the outside?”


Willow shrugged one shoulder.


“Nothing.”


She brought her phone up in front of them and showed Tara the random social media chatter.


“…it all seems so trivial. Doesn’t it? I mean how can life just seem so the same out there when…”


Tara brushed some hair from Willow’s brow.


“When it changed so much in here?”


Willow shook her head with self-derision.


“Silly.”


“Not in the slightest,” Tara replied and leaned up to kiss Willow’s cheek.


Willow smiled at Tara and shoved her phone away again. They cuddled up and chatted comfortably until there was another knock on the door.


Tara’s eyebrow arched in annoyance.


“Again?”


Willow smiled and threw her legs out of the bed.


“No, it’s me this time,” she said, getting the robe back on and opening the room door, stepping outside it, “I’ll bring it. Thanks.”


Willow grinned as she pushed a cart in with two silver domes sitting on it.


“Food, glorious food.”


Tara sat up, holding the sheet to her chest.


“Room service?” she asked anxiously, “Isn’t it crazy expensive?”


“Don’t worry, I got it,” Willow dismissed, then frowned when Tara continued to seem concerned, “You said you were hungry.”


Tara felt conflicted but she couldn’t — wouldn’t — let them fight now.


Not today. Willow was only being kind.


She finally smiled.


“Thanks. That was really sweet. What have we got?”


Willow beamed and rolled the cart by the bed. She took the first dome off.


“I wasn’t sure what you wanted, so I got us a platter.”


Tara’s belly rumbled as she took in the spread. There was halloumi cheese, a variety of dips, arancini, cubed watermelon, flatbreads, rolled prosciutto and mini bruschetta. It was like the fancy platters Tara used to have to serve at the country club but had never actually had opportunity to sample.


Tara spread some hummus on a flatbread with halloumi and prosciutto and took a bite. She couldn’t hold back the smile.


“‘Kay, is ’eally goog!”


She blushed and swallowed what was in her mouth.


“Okay, it’s really good.”


Willow shed the robe once again; surprised, but also not, that nakedness was actually becoming her preferred state of being, at least when it was just her and Tara.


They ate each and every bit of the platter (the quantity of contents actually meant to generously serve four adults), and barely left any crumbs. When they were done, Willow cleared everything back to the cart.


“Dessert?” she asked with a mischievous smile and just as Tara was about to lean in to claim said dessert, Willow took the second dome off and revealed the actual dessert.


Two imperfect discs of meringue, separated by layers of berries and cream with the fresh fruit of the juice running down the sides.


It was a pretty good second choice, Tara reasoned.


“It’s pavlova,” Willow said as she handed Tara a fork, “National delicacy but not one of those objectionable ones made from questionable animal parts.”


Tara made the fork glide through the meringue, making it crack and flake with a crunch as she scooped it onto the utensil. With a little bit of everything perfectly balanced, she held it out for Willow to eat.


Willow smiled and closed her mouth around the offering. It all melted together on her tongue and as she swallowed she felt Tara’s thumb brush an errant bit of cream from the corner of her mouth. Not to be outdone, Willow offered Tara some of the dessert in the same way. They fed the whole plate to each other, often purposefully dabbing cream in opportunistic places just to rub or kiss it away.


Willow dragged her finger across the empty plate to get the very last bit of it and brushed it on her own lips with a grin. Tara returned the smile, leaned in and kissed Willow and very slowly pushed Willow onto her back and hovered over her on her forearms.


She gently nuzzled their noses together.


“I love you.”


Willow closed her eyes as Tara peppered kisses along her jaw. She brought her hand to Tara’s cheek and opened her eyes as she smiled.


“I love you too.”


Tara kissed Willow for a moment and rolled off, holding her stomach.


“I ate so much.”


Willow brought the blanket around them comfortably. She snuggled in.


“A little rest is probably a good idea anyway.”


Tara’s arms found their way around Willow to hug her close.


“But just a little.”

Chapter Text


Auckland
(Part 3)


Baby, You're My Open Road
You Can Take Me Anywhere The Wind Blows


Tara skidded out of the hotel, still trying to smooth out the collar on her sweater with Willow on her heels tucking her shirt into her pants.


Willow pointed ahead aggressively.


“There!”


“Where?” Tara asked, looking between a line of different cars.


Willow ran to a Toyota and opened the back door.


“This one!”


They both slid into the back seat, panting and their driver smiled at them through the rearview mirror.


“Hey ladies. Off to the bridge?”


“Fast, please,” Willow requested politely. She fixed her seatbelt over her body and threw Tara some side-eye and lowered her voice, “This is your fault.”


Tara looked at her incredulously.


“Me? You were the one who…!”


“You bent over!” Willow hissed.


“I was putting my shoes on!” Tara retorted, finally settling her sweater around her neatly.


Willow crossed her arms over her chest lightly.


“You knew what you were doing.”


Tara rolled her eyes and took in a deep breath to catch her lungs up from the run from the room.


Willow watched Tara’s chest lift with the breath and found her hand automatically creeping toward Tara’s thigh.


Tara caught Willow’s hand as her fingers brushed the inseam of her jeans and pushed it off.


“Stop it!” she whispered, though her harsh tone contrasted greatly with the blushing smile blooming across her face.


The car got them to their destination fast, as requested, and parked in a little lot that lay parallel to the bridge. Their driver lifted his hand to wave goodbye.


“Enjoy the climb. Don’t look down, huh!”


Willow and Tara returned the friendly smile as they rushed out of the car toward the little unit where they were to check in. A young man stood in there with an iPad and smiled as they came in.


“Kia ora.”


Willow stepped forward.


“Um, hi. I’m Willow, um, Rosenberg,” she said, blushing lightly, “This is my girlfriend. Tara. Sorry, we’re a little, um, late.”


Tara looked at Willow, shocked for a moment but Willow didn’t notice as the man with the iPad came to greet them.


“That’s no problem, you’re the only two booked for the tour, eh!” he said cheerfully, “Some people got spooked by the rain we’ve been having but couldn’t ask for a nicer day out there. Let me run you through how things’ll work today and then we’ll get you suited up. I’m James, by the way.”


After a short but thorough briefing, they were brought to get into the safety suits and don helmets for their climb across the Auckland harbor bridge. The suit was grey and black and zipped right up to the neck.


“I feel like a Ghostbuster,” Willow said as she turned out the cuffs, “I keep expecting a 40-year-old white guy to come over and tell me I’m ruining his childhood.”


Tara laughed and Willow looked down bashfully.


Another woman approached, cheery.


“I’m Shan, I’ll be your guide today. Looks like you’ll be getting a private tour. Lucky, eh? First, we’re going to be climbing under the bridge to get us to the walkway, so keep those helmets on securely. Let’s clip you into the railing here.”


Willow went ahead of Tara, but they trailed closely together as they started the ascent up to the top of the massive, sprawling bridge that stretched out over the water.


They walked under the structure at first and were given an informative lesson on the history of the building of the bridge. They got to a stairway that led them up to follow the outer curve of the bridge and immediately they could see the city and the harbor for miles.


Cars sped past beneath them and it was exhilarating to watch them zoom past and be so high above them.


Both kept their nearest hands on the railing to keep some steadiness in the somewhat-shaky arching walk but Willow kept looking back to smile at Tara and see if she was finding it just as thrilling.


At the very top, the wind was whipping their faces but the sky and water reflected a serene blue against each other and the sun poking out from behind the clouds made the cityscape glimmer in the distance. It was awe-inducing.


Shan had a camera to take pictures of their reactions and caught them both with various city and water backdrops.


“It’s amazing up here,” Willow said loudly to Tara to be heard over the cars rushing below, “I thought I’d be scared but I’m not.”


Tara smiled and snuck a very quick kiss on Willow’s cheek from behind. It was a split second but Shan caught it in a picture and then stayed a few feet away to let them enjoy the feeling of being on top of the bottom of the world.


The journey back down was more of a leisurely stroll but things started to bustle again as they returned to the small building they’d arrived to and prepared for the second stage of this adventurous morning.


They’d gone up and now it was time to go down.


They took off the coveralls and helmets and were fitted with new harnesses that attached over their chests and around their waists.


There were a few more people waiting this time and they joined the group to follow them back under the bridge. They went across a walkway to a new staircase that brought them to a small pod set up with equipment and crew and had a window behind it where everyone was brought to wait for their turn.


They were safely behind a see-through wall but it did nothing to stop Willow from seeing how far down it was. With no trusty clip to keep her anchored this time, she started to feel nervous.


It only grew as the first person in the group finished getting set up and jumped from the launch pad like it was only a few inches down. Willow felt her stomach drop with him.


Tara noticed Willow start to sweat on her brow and discreetly took her hand between them.


“Honey, are you okay?”


Willow turned to her, pale.


“I don’t think I can do it,” she whispered, a quiver in her voice, “The scared stuff, definitely hitting me now.”


“You can, I know it,” Tara whispered back confidently.


Willow was moments away from a full-blown freakout.


“No, I can’t, I can’t. You go, I have to leave, I—”


“What if we did it together?” Tara interrupted her voice still low and not disturbing a single another person in their midst.


Her hand held Willow deceptively tight with just enough pressure to be reassuring but not too much to make her feel trapped.


Willow’s breath evened a little bit.


“C-Can we do that?”


“Yeah, we can do a tandem jump,” Tara replied with a soft smile, “We can make each other brave. Please? I could use the help.”


Willow gulped and blushed.


“Yeah, okay,” she replied, feeling a weak but renewed sense of gumption, “For you, I can…I can do that.”


Her heart was still hammering but it was easier to breathe through it. Surprisingly, she felt herself get calmer as she got closer, but she thought that might be because they started to tether her to Tara.


Where Tara went, she would go too, and that was the safest feeling in the world.


Their feet were weighted down and the ropes were attached and everything started to feel very real. Though the line between terror and elation started to ebb in the latter’s direction.


The ledge grew near and Tara started to feel her anxiety rising as well. But then Willow squeezed her hand at just the right moment and they shared a look and stepped forward together.


A three-second countdown felt like at least fifteen as they both stood on the edge, arms wrapped around each other, staring down at the vast body of water beneath them.


Tara looked at Willow and mouthed ‘ready?’


Willow shook her head from side to side, but then a slow smile spread across her face and she was the one to bring them over the edge and free-fall 130 feet to the water’s surface.


Willow screamed a series of, or perhaps one very long, giggle as they fell; their arms wrapped around each other as tight as could be. Just before the upward swing, they locked eyes and Willow didn’t hesitate for a moment to shut herself up with Tara’s lips. She allowed her arms to go freely and gave herself over to the rush of it all.


Tara’s exuberance was quieter but no less profound as colors and shapes rushed before her eyes and then Willow’s lips were on hers and her whole world was in a spin. When Willow’s arms let go of her waist, Tara did the same and their bodies slowly swayed and bobbed to a halt.


“Whoa,” Willow breathed as the ropes steadied and their bodies began to be pulled upward.


“Whoa,” Tara agreed, swallowing deeply during the time it took for the brief ascent.


They stumbled back onto the platform and it was a blur of getting freed from the ropes and joining the rest of the group to return back down to the ground.


Willow looked through all of the pictures and video that had been taken of them and though initially, she considered those extra packages to be a bit of a scam, she felt something like liberation in her heart when she watched the video of the jump and how freely she’d kissed Tara in the moment. The photos on the bridge were quite intimate and Willow realized their guide must have known what was up and passed no remark.


In fact, she continued to take pictures of them. It was another flicker of hope that pushed away some of the fear of being othered that lived in her deep down inside.


“Can I get copies of everything? Thanks.”


James the iPad guy handed her an envelope with a USB key and business card with a link to download. Willow had never as easily parted with a couple of hundred bucks. She would never forget this experience or the 30 or so seconds where she’d felt utterly free.


Willow made her way out to the front of the building where Tara was waiting.


“Hey.”


“Hey!” Tara greeted enthusiastically, folding her arms around Willow.


Willow smiled at the surprised envelopment but completely understood. They’d been bonding emotionally and physically more than ever lately and sharing that adrenaline rush only added to it.


They reluctantly parted but stayed close.


“We have to get back to the hotel,” Willow said, holding the envelope with the media in it close to her chest so she didn’t lose it, “They could only extend check-out for an hour. We didn’t plan this very well.”


“Well we didn’t put staying in bed so much on the itinerary,” Tara replied as she blushed and reached behind to scratch the back of her neck, “They have a shuttle that drops us around the corner from the hotel over there. Oh, it looks like it’s leaving.”


They both hurried toward the bus but went different ways around a lamppost and Willow skidded right through a patch of mud still in a puddle from yesterday’s rain.


Tara heard the thump of Willow hitting the ground and spun back around.


“Willow!”


Willow grimaced as she let Tara help her back up. Her chin was smeared down her neck and her hands were covered in mud she had to sheepishly wipe on the grass and then against her pants.


“I’m okay.”


The bus turned out onto the street in front of them. Willow sighed.


“Guess I’m walking. No one is going to let me in their car like this. Hey, you go ahead.”


Tara shook her head.


“I’m sticking with you.”


She brushed her hand against Willow’s and Willow smiled as their palms touched, mud be damned.


The walk back to the hotel took them straight along the harbor back into the city and really was a lovely way to get their last views of the city.


“I almost can’t believe we’re leaving…” Willow said sadly, “I know we’ve only been here a little while but…it just feels like so much has happened.”


Tara squeezed Willow’s hand.


“We’re not leaving it behind, we’re bringing it with us.”


Willow briefly leaned her head against Tara’s shoulder.


“I love how you see the world.”


They arrived back at the hotel and hurried quickly through the lobby.


“I think they think we’re the most uncouth guests they’ve ever had…” Willow whispered as she repeatedly pressed the elevator button.


“I got used to that attitude when I worked at the country club,” Tara whispered back, smiling playfully.


Willow swallowed guiltily. That one still hung on her mind.


They stepped into the elevator and Tara pushed out a breath of reminiscent frustration.


“Thank god I got out of there. I could never have justified quitting but I hated it there.”


Willow lifted an eyebrow, surprised.


“Really?”


“Oh yeah,” Tara replied, then smiled apologetically, “No offense.”


Willow quickly shook her head.


“Zero taken. I hate it there too,” she replied, then slowly continued, worried about putting this out there and having her guilt compounded, “Does it not bother you, you know…being fired…having that on your record?”


Tara shrugged gently.


“I don’t think one job at 17 is going to follow me around. And it pushed me into the job at Honkerburger because they were the only place I could find that didn’t ask for a reference. I made good money there. The country club people never tipped. I might not have been able to scrape together the money for the ticket when the accident happened if I’d stayed there.”


Tara gently brushed her shoulder with Willow’s and lowered her voice.


“And it was never your fault.”


Willow should have known better than to think she could sweep that under the rug without Tara ever knowing. Tara always knew.


“I should’ve stuck up for you,” she admitted, “I just let it happen.”


“I slacked off is the truth of it,” Tara replied evenly, “And I got caught insulting a guest. I forgot it wasn’t just the two of us giggling in your bedroom. That’s my fault.”


She smoothed her hand over Willow’s hair.


“Really, it’s for the best I don’t work anywhere where you’re also going to be because you’re just far too tempting.”


Her hand fell off at Willow’s neck and flicked a tiny pebble stuck there with mud. Willow blushed.


“I need to take a quick shower.”


She went straight to the bathroom when they got back to the room and Tara went about checking everywhere to make sure they hadn’t left anything unpacked.


As she shoved some empty wrappers into the trash can, she felt her phone buzz in her pocket and took it out to see her mother requesting a video call. She accepted it and sat at the foot of the bed, offering a smile through her front camera.


“Hi, mom.”


“Oh hello, sweetheart,” Kimberly’s voice came through as she picture focused, “Oh, it’s good to see you.”


“What time is it there?” Tara asked, glancing briefly at her watch.


“5:45 pm,” Kimberly explained, “I’m just getting ready for a night shift. I thought I’d try you before it got too late. Or early. Or…well, it’s all very confusing. Where are you two?”


Tara leaned back on one arm, holding the phone up to her face with the other.


“We’re just gearing up to leave Auckland. We got a free ferry pass with the car rental so we’re driving down to Christchurch but we’re stopping along the way. We’re going on the ski tour from there and then we leave for Melbourne.”


Kimberly rested her chin on her fist and listened to Tara, smiling.


“It’s all so exciting. Are you having all the fun you dreamed of? The adventure?”


Tara hesitated cautiously for a moment.


“We did a bungee jump today.”


Kimberly’s face fell and her eyes widened.


“You did WHAT?!”


“That’s why I didn’t tell you beforehand,” Tara replied, swallowing, “Everything is okay. Nothing was broken or dislodged. Just a lot of endorphins and adrenaline.”


Kimberly sighed and shook her head.


“Yes well in future please continue to not tell your mother when you’re about to throw yourself off cliffs.”


“It was a bridge,” Tara replied cheekily and received one of those trademarked ‘looks’ that only a mother could give.


Willow came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel with freshly de-mudded skin.


“I think I’m just going to toss those clothes, I don’t have time to wring them out and I don’t want to pack muddy clothes…”


She saw Tara was on the phone and mouthed ‘sorry’. Tara gave her a quick once-over and briefly cast her gaze back to her mother.


“Um, I have to go. I need to pick up the rental car before we check out.”


“Please be careful driving on the wrong side of the road,” Kimberly pleaded.


“Yeah, uh huh, bye,” Tara nodded and hung up without waiting for a response.


“Is that your mom?” Willow asked without realizing Tara had hung up, “Tell her I say—”


Before she knew it, Tara was pressing her up against the dresser.


“Oh, hi.”


“Hi,” Tara replied breathlessly.


Eighteen or so minutes later, they ran down the corridor with their luggage weighing them down, tucking their clothing into places to preserve modesty yet again.


“This one was definitely your fault,” Willow said, face still bright red.


“We can argue later,” Tara replied, poking the elevator button repeatedly, “The guy who phoned from the lobby said they’d charge us another night if we didn’t check out in 10 minutes.”


“Not the coitus interruptus I learned about in health class,” Willow muttered sullenly under her breath.


She looked at Tara’s sex-swept hair and leaned up to press a kiss to her cheek.


Previously tucked shirts were untucked by the time the elevator doors opened in the lobby and they had to extract themselves with serious blushing as they pushed past the people waiting.


Tara looked at the time on her phone as they got to the line at the desk.


“Are you good with these if I run to get the car?”


Willow thought that was a good idea. She wasn’t even sure an open lobby could dissuade her from pouncing on Tara at this point.


“Yeah, yeah. I’ll just drag ‘em outside. Go.”


Tara ran off and Willow spent several minutes in line just exhaling and trying to calm down every jumping nerve inside her body.


She tried not to think about how she’d been just minutes before; bent over the bed while Tara had one hand between her legs determined to get the job done while the other held the room phone to her ear and spoke politely to the desk clerk telling him they’d be right down.


She tried, but it was futile. The memory was forever burned into her brain.


She was pretty sure she had given them away with a telling, high-pitched cry and so approached the desk with an even more furious blush.


It was the same polite but animated young man who had checked them in that first morning.


“Checking out?”


Willow wordlessly slid the room keys across the desk to Theo, whom she was sure was smirking. A spool of purple hair flicked mockingly, seemingly by itself.


“I hope you enjoyed your stay and found your satisfaction.”


“W-what?” Willow asked, her heart hammering in a fresh, erratic rhythm.


Theo just smiled innocently, the same way Tara smiled innocently when she used some spicy talk.


“I hope you enjoyed your stay and found everything to your satisfaction.”


Willow took the receipt that was handed across and folded it into her purse.


“Thanks. Um…bye now.”


She tried to slink away without drawing any more attention to herself but failed spectacularly when she tried to bring all of the luggage with her and managed to make it all fall in different directions.


A bellhop kindly came over to help her out the door and she silently shoved some cash into his hand and waited as inconspicuously as possible. This whole morning had left her feeling very exposed.


A little while later, an old grey three-door compact car that looked like it might just be older than she was pulled up on the curb. Tara popped the trunk and hopped out to lug the bags in.


Willow looked at it, slightly unimpressed.


“This is…a car.”


“Were you expecting a truck?” Tara asked with a smile.


Willow shook her head.


“No…but maybe something a little sexier.”


“Well, this is what I got,” Tara replied with some concealed frustration, “You gonna help me?”


Willow nodded and quickly helped Tara load everything up. She automatically went to get into the passenger seat but found herself sitting in front of the wheel, confused.


A moment later, Tara knocked on the half-open window.


“I think you’re in my seat.”


“Right,” Willow blushed, “It’s on the other side. Autopilot.”


She went around to the passenger side and buckled herself in. She watched Tara check her mirrors and start the ignition and smiled to herself.


“Wow. Wow. You’re actually making this jalopy look sexy.”


Tara offered her a coy smile and a wink so sly Willow wasn’t sure she even saw it.


Sometimes Willow wasn’t sure if Tara was being provocative on purpose or if she was just imagining it because she liked the rush it gave her. It used to be a rush of fear, or at least that’s what she covered the actual feeling with. Now she was beginning to allow herself to feel it for real and it was all still a tad confusing.


“You don’t mind driving?”


Tara shook her head.


“I think it’s best.”


“Hey, I’m a great driver!” Willow protested indignantly, “I got 103% in Driver’s Ed!”


“You just don’t have much practical experience. You never drove at home,” Tara replied delicately, “And I need you to give me directions.”


Willow took her phone from her pocket and put it in the little holder on the dash.


“You know they call out the directions step-by-step these days.”


“I bet its voice isn’t as pretty as yours,” Tara returned sweetly.


Willow blushed lightly and distracted herself by keying in their destination to the map app.


“We’re staying in the… Kai Iwi Motel right?” she asked, resisting the urge to pull a face, “Sounds…motel-y.”


“It was the cheapest place with a safe parking lot,” Tara answered with her eyes on the road, “Am I going left or right?”


“Turn left at the 1st cross street onto Halsey Street,” the app called out right on cue.


“I have to say, maybe I was wrong,” Tara said with a grin, “Pretty cute.”


“Hey,” Willow said with a pout, taking her phone in her lap and tapping the button to turn the voice off, “I’ll call them out. I’m not losing you to some skanky cute-voiced navigator.”


Tara briefly reached over and rubbed the back of Willow’s head affectionately before returning it to the wheel.


Willow smiled and leaned into Tara’s hand, then settled her head back against the headrest.


“Will I play—take the next right—some music, or—”


She paused, eyes slowly widening as she reached out to push her fingers through a little flap on the center console.


“Is this…a TAPE player?!” she asked, incredulous and amused, “How did you even find a car this old? It must have taken real effort.”


“Most of the rental places didn’t want to rent to an 18-year-old, or they wanted crazy money for it. I had to compromise,” Tara replied calmly, “It’s a car. It will get us where we need to go.”


“If we’re lucky,” Willow muttered, then sighed, “Guess no tunes.”


Tara dropped a hand into the side pocket and brought up a cassette tape up between two fingers.


“I prepared.”


Willow took it and turned it over several times.


“You brought a tape?” she asked, eyebrows disappearing into her scalp, “A TAPE? I didn’t realize this was a DeLorean.”


“I didn’t realize you were Carol Burnett,” Tara shot back with a slightly cocky grin.


Willow opened the cassette case and suddenly had a memory of being small and Tara teaching her how to rewind with a pen. Even way back then CDs were more popular. Tara had just liked them.


“Where did you even find this? I don’t think I’ve seen one since I was 5 years old. Keep ahead until the turn-off for the highway. We’re good for a while after that.”


“I’ve been making mixtapes for years,” Tara answered, tapping her fingers against the steering wheel.


“What for?” Willow asked, confused when it was so much easier to make compilations with technology.


Tara’s lips twitched at the corner.


“Fun.”


Willow ran her thumb over the ‘road trip’ label on the tape and the ever-so-slightly frayed edges.


“How come you never made me a romantic one?”


Tara’s back shifted uncomfortably.


“Because you’d laugh at me.”


“No, I wouldn’t,” Willow replied, brow creased and tone affronted.


“You’re laughing at me now,” Tara replied, casting Willow a momentary pointed look.


“No,” Willow replied quickly, placing her hand on Tara’s upper arm, “No, I promise. I think it’s cool. And it’s very you, very retro. Very…quirky.”


Tara smiled sideways.


“Two peas in a pod, you and me.”


Her pinky lifted from the wheel and Willow wrapped her pinky around it.


“Let’s see how this works,” she said as she slid the tape into the deck and pressed play.


‘Mr. Blue Sky’ played and Willow started to bop along in her seat.


“Hey, I like this one!”


“You don’t trust my choice in music?” Tara asked, her smirk teetering toward teasing, “You’re the one who plays Barry White during sex.”


Willow’s mouth hung open, first in shock at Tara’s brazen statement, then in a huff as she registered the insult.


“Hey! Those are classics!”


Tara nodded along, seemingly in agreement, but her smirk was still there as her eyes playfully bounced, taking in Willow’s affront.


“But what’s your excuse for Kings of Leon?”


Willow’s mouth snapped shut.


“It’s relevant! ‘Sex’ is literally in the title!”


Tara’s face scrunched up.


“I don’t like to think about…”


She threw some fingers off the wheel indicatively, but Willow just looked blank. Tara sighed.


“Blowjobs,” she whispered with a brief curl of disgust on her lips, “Especially…at that moment.”


Willow looked like she’d been slapped.


“THAT’S what it’s about?!”


“Look at the lyrics,” Tara replied, concentrating on the road for a moment as she did a difficult merge and had a brief surge forward when she glanced in the wrong direction as another car passed.


The track changed to ‘Road To Nowhere’ but the more striking noise to fill the car was Willow’s sharp gasp as she googled the aforementioned lyrics and read a line she’d previously never picked up on. She pushed her phone face down between her legs, scandalized as if she’d seen images of the actual act and not just a tame lyric about it.


“On reflection, I should have left it up to you. This is your area.”


Tara shook her head.


“No, I don’t have a bigger claim on music than anyone else.”


Comfortably in her lane, she glanced over at Willow and reached over at a moment, brushing her fingers against Willow’s cheek and down her arm.


“Besides…I like the soundtrack your body makes.”


Willow felt her skin tingle every place Tara touched. She gulped.


“So…no music then.”


Tara brought her hand down and danced her fingers along Willow’s thigh.


“Well, a song is more than just the lyrics. You put the right notes together and it can make you laugh or cry or…feel things. There’s definitely an opportunity for the mood to be set. Or…enhanced.”


Willow’s legs snapped together at Tara’s touch and Tara took her hand back, smirking.


That smirk did things to Willow she blushed just thinking about, never mind saying.


“Have you ever listened to a song and felt a little shiver at the base of your spine? Like your ears don’t just hear it, your body actually recognizes the rhythm?”


Willow nodded slowly.


“Sure. Makes you wanna dance.”


“Exactly,” Tara replied, lips brushing with a grin, “Barry White just…does not make me want to dance.”


“Harsh,” Willow said with the start of a pout.


“I’m not mocking your choices,” Tara reassured quickly, “They have a very solid, old school vibe. Massive Attack certainly have a wanton vibe I can get behind.”


Willow was still pouting.


“That sounds like code for ‘lame’.


“Darling, no,” Tara replied, squeezing Willow’s thigh for a moment, “They’re classics for a reason. I guess I just…march to a different beat.”


Willow smiled softly and covered Tara’s hand on the wheel affectionately for a second.


“That’s true. Tell me your beat.”


Tara was contemplative for a moment as she focused ahead on the road.


“A good sex playlist has five songs, total.”


“Five?” Willow questioned, eyebrow arching, “Seems…short.”


Too short.


Especially for Tara, in Willow’s experience.


“Yes, five,” Tara nodded definitively, “After that, you should be making your own music.”


Willow had to bite her lip to stop herself from the soft moan that threatened to come out at the look Tara shot her way. It was hard to maintain her indignation.


“I guess good ole Barry doesn’t make your five.”


Tara’s chin lifted and her eyes blinked slowly several times, then her head started to bob.


Willow had watched this many times; Tara getting into the music space in her head, but it still captivated her how much Tara’s body was just taken over by an invisible beat.


“I’d start with ‘Always Be My Baby’.”


“Mariah Carey?!” Willow asked incredulously with a teasing smile, “You’re giving me shit for Barry White but your first choice is Mariah Carey?”


“Yes,” Tara replied assuredly, “It’s mid-tempo and it’s fun but it still has that R&B undertone. It’s perfect for setting the mood. You hear those vocables, that ‘do do doop do doop da dum’ and it hits you like a slow shiver. It’s the ‘come a little closer’ song. It’s fun. It’s rhythmic. The dance floor seduction, if you will.”


“I definitely will,” Willow answered, a little too quickly.


Tara smiled.


“Then the real seduction starts. You want the tone to shift enough to know that ‘this is happening’. You have to go in strong, so I’d pick ‘Redbone’, maybe controversially… but those opening bars just make me want to move my body… against another body. Against your body.”


Her body rolled in the seat, a subtle movement but Willow swore she could see the shiver rise on her spine.


“Then I’d move onto ‘Acquainted’. Those drum beats, ooh. Every time. I get that squeeze in my belly like every touch is the first. The beat change is straining and elongating and it lets you get lost for a few minutes.”


The way she said ‘ooh’ made Willow feel her own beat between her legs.


“And then I’ve always been a fan of ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ when things are revving up. It’s very visceral, it’s very sexy, it’s like that moment when you know the tide is turning and you’re getting down,” Tara continued, looking off to the side yet still engaging Willow with an occasional smirk, “And the sultry overtones gnaws on that gut feeling, the fire in your belly, that stretch where you’re ready to give yourself over. It’s the perfect interlude.”


She paused, her cheeks starting to lightly color and her breath speeding up just enough to be noticed.


“Then, well, this is where things change up a bit. This is where it all hinges, this is where you change from mood to pace. Your outro. It has to pack a punch but also transition you perfectly into the rest of the act.”


She paused and shot that smirk at Willow again so quick she barely had time to register it.


“Going fast I would maybe play something like ‘S&M’. It’s a bit on the nose but it’s fun and fast is about fun.”


Willow watched Tara roll her neck like she was stretching it but she saw it for the vulnerable exposure it was.


“Anyway, I’m much more interested in going slow,” Tara added on, her tongue leaving her mouth for a moment to wet her dry lips, “And for that I would absolutely end on ‘I’m Kissing You’ because it’s rich and romantic and I know by then I’ll be consumed by how my lips feel against your skin.”


She gasped softly, her lids closing for a second longer than was wise behind the wheel.


“Yeah, that’s perfection.”


She could hear Willow’s breath quickening and knew her own was quivering.


“And after that, it’s all going to fade away because…”


She let out a shaken breath.


“All I’m going to be listening to is you.”


Willow didn’t know if she could cope with the sexual tension building up in the small space.


“I-I don’t think I know some of those.”


“I’ll have to play them for you sometime,” Tara offered, her voice so wonderfully melodic, full of all of the promise hidden in her words.


Yep, Willow definitely couldn’t take it.


Her hand slapped around for a button to roll the window down and it eventually landed on the crank handle. She turned it several times until a cool breeze was rushing past her cheeks.


“Sounds good! Great! Just…swell!”


“Swell,” Tara agreed and Willow had never felt so good about being mocked.


After a moment, Willow frowned.


“Wait, who were you listening to all that with?”


Tara arched an eyebrow and pursed her lips as her cheeks turned pink.


“Myself.”


Willow gulped again and tossed her face to the other side again to get some air on her cheeks.


She spent a while just looking out the window and marveling at how beautiful the scenery even surrounding the highway was.


Lush greens, hazy mountains, and blue sky. She’d been driven up and down the California coast and seen many an overhead landscape from a plane but there was nothing quite like this.


“So…” Tara spoke out with a nervous lilt over the opening organ music of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, “You used the ‘g’ word today.”


Willow turned her head from looking out the window toward Tara. She smiled softly, peaceful, a feeling she was still getting used to.


“…gumdrop?” she asked, grinning as her lips popped the ‘p’, “Gnome? Gravi—”


“Girlfriend,” Tara interrupted, a little too quickly.


Willow’s mouth closed silently. It lasted just a bit too long for Tara, whose knuckles tightened on the wheel and she looked ahead, steely.


“Sorry, just forget about it.”


“No, I’m—” Willow started to reply, feeling an unpleasant squeeze on her heart at the look Tara was trying to hide on her face, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to shut down. I was just surprised. I hadn’t realized…it must have just felt right at that moment.”


She looked down at her lap where she saw her hands twisting around each other and she made herself flatten them on her lap.


“I’ve always been a little scared of that word, actually. Not just because of its…description,” she said, tone dropping guiltily for a moment, “I’ve just always known you as you my… my friend. My best friend. I was afraid of the change. I know that’s stupid when so much else has changed…or…well, I guess it hasn’t really, has it? This, us, has always been…just always been.”


Nothing but Bono’s voice filled the car and Willow felt her heart start to hammer nervously.


“A-are you? Do you want to be?” she asked, just above a whisper, before casting her eyes in Tara’s direction to seek an answer, “My girlfriend?”


Tara’s hands slid up and down the wheel for a moment. She took a few even breaths and then glanced back at Willow.


“I think the question has always been ‘are you mine?’”


Willow was surprised by how little hesitation she felt in answering that.


“Yes,” she said, closing her hand over Tara’s on top of the wheel.


She could only look on from the side as Tara’s whole face lit up, her posture straightened in the seat and her shoulders relaxed right down.


It really hit Willow hard that Tara shoved down her own feelings to cater to her. She wanted to be a real girlfriend to her, an equal, a caretaker of Tara’s heart whether it was aching or soaring.


She felt Tara’s hand slip out from under hers on the wheel and cover it again, squeezing her tenderly.


“Girlfriend still has ‘friend’ in it, you know.”


At that moment Willow knew that she would be with Tara for the rest of her life.


Unable to express or even fully comprehend the feeling that sat deep in her bones, she just leaned over and pressed a lingering kiss to Tara’s cheek, only breaking with the loud sound of her lips popping off to turn up the volume on the tape.


“Hey I love this one!” she gushed, radiating happiness, “Life is a highway, I wanna ride it all night long!


Tara only knew Willow to sing when she was really relaxed, and even then often only when they were making up homework songs and she thought they were being hilarious. Feeling just as bright as the sparkle of Willow’s teeth showing as she sang through a smile, Tara joined right in and sang with her girlfriend as they drove along the highway.


If you're going my way, I wanna drive it all night long!


They spent the next stretch of road cycling through the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides of the tape and singing along loudly, which had been Tara’s express intention when she made them.


Road trip songs have to be the kind that can be screeched at the top of your voice without breaking the windows and Tara’s selection did just that. They also mostly had titles relating to driving or traveling, but that was just for her own whimsy.


As one of the last songs played, Willow pointed excitedly at a welcome sign.


“Hey, look! We’re here!”

Chapter Text


Rotorua


If I’m Going To Be Someone Equally Free, There Are Things That I Must Unlearn


“Aww.”


Willow frowned as the tape clicked into silence.


“I was enjoying that.”


“Don’t worry, I made a few more to cover the trip,” Tara said as Willow slid the cassette back into the case, which she noted did in face have the number ‘1’ next to ‘Road Trip’ on the label.


“Of course you did,” Willow replied fondly, reaching over to squeeze Tara’s shoulder, “I love you.”


Tara smiled back and Willow dropped her head back against the rest, pensive for a moment.


“You know I mean I’m in love with you when I say that, right? It’s just, I said ‘I love you’ before we were, uh, and…well, I guess I meant it then too, huh.”


“It’s a mind-trip sometimes,” Tara agreed with an elongation of her soft smile, “I know what you mean when you say it. Funnily enough, you not saying it all that time makes me sure now. I’m glad you didn’t blur the lines and you waited until you were sure you were returning the same words I was. That you cared for me enough not to mess me around emotionally like that.”


Tara’s words were like a massage on Willow’s heart, relieving some of her grief.


“And I love you, too,” Tara finished and Willow wrapped her arms around herself because she needed a squeeze and her squeeze of choice was busy driving.


She got a little lost in her own embrace and didn’t realize Tara was looking for her attention until she felt a tugging on her sleeve.


“Sorry, what?” she said, shaking her head out of her daze.


“Directions, please,” Tara said with some urgency in her voice.


“Shit!” Willow replied, scrambling to pick up her phone under her, “Um, turn to Ha, um… Hip, I mean Hap…I don’t think I can pronounce these names just from text! Uh…okay, next left! 30 feet!”


Tara turned onto a city street that looked distinct from the surroundings they'd come up. There was lots of buildings that hadn’t been updated in a while and lots of people walking around, smiling and waving at each other.


“It’s like driving through the Pleasantville but in the 90s,” Willow commented, then suddenly pointed to something outside Tara’s window, “Look, there’s a video store! An actual video store! I thought our old battered copy of The Little Mermaid might be the last the world but that place is full of them!”


Willow began to roll down her window, but almost immediately started winding it up again.


“Whoa, what is that smell?!”


“They don’t call it the geothermal wonderland for nothing,” Tara replied, nose scrunching as she too caught the pungent sulfuric scent that was unique to this particular town, “It bubbles up through the street cracks. Pretty cool when you think about it.”


“Very cool,” Willow agreed, rubbing her hand under her nose to ‘lose’ the smell, “And also very stinky. I didn’t get much time to research every stop along the way. I didn't know it smelled like this here.”


“Well I’ve only spent the last half-decade or so doing it, so don’t worry,” Tara said, slowing the car at a stop light, “Besides, we’re traveling to have experiences, not just read about them.”


“Next right,” Willow said as the light went green, “Makes me a little glad I’m not hanging around tomorrow. I don’t know if I could cope with a whole day of that stink.”


She brushed against Tara’s arm.


“You sure you don’t want to come? Keep me company?”


“I know you really enjoy it, but the Lord of the Rings was never really my thing,” Tara replied carefully.


Though it hadn’t stopped her sitting through each and every movie with Willow in a dark theater when they had special showings pretending they were on a date, though. With Xander on Willow’s other side, her pretending to be on a date with him while he obliviously munched on some popcorn.


“The scenery is supposed to be really beautiful,” Willow added in, voice rising hopefully.


“I believe it. Even the highway scenery was beautiful,” Tara nodded, then cleared her throat, “Honestly Willow, it’s too expensive.”


Willow’s brow creased.


“It’s cheaper than the bungee.”


Tara sighed but contained it so it wasn’t obvious. She knew Willow knew she had a budget, she had shown Willow it in her big binder. Willow had used it as a reference for her own budgeting but seemed to be throwing caution to the wind a lot more than Tara ever could.


“The bungee was a special expense…something on my ‘must do’ list. And it was amazing, I’m still all tingly from it. But we’ve been away for more than a week… and there’s 51 more to go. I can’t do every single thing.”


Willow opened her mouth.


“I’ll—”


“No,” Tara cut her off before the words could even come out, then continued firmly, “Which way?”


Willow looked down at her phone glumly and directed Tara the rest of the way to the motel.


Tara got the keys and helped Willow bring their stuff in. It was small, just a double bed in the corner with wall shelving over and alongside it, a trash can and a rectangular window six inches below the ceiling that even if they stood on the bed to look out of, would only see a brick wall.


Willow stood to the side and spied each corner as Tara lifted her bag onto the bed to unpack the few things she wanted to hand, like toiletries and her phone charger.


“Um, is the door to the bathroom invisible?”


Tara looked over her shoulder, brow furrowing a little.


“It’s down the hall.”


“Shared bathrooms?” Willow asked as if she’d just been asked to drink a rat smoothie, “What if you have to go in the middle of the night?”


“The same thing you do at home?” Tara suggested with a raised eyebrow, “Go and come back to bed?”


“Big difference from where we’re leaving,” Willow grumbled.


Tara pursed her lips and tried not to get annoyed.


“Welcome to backpacking, hun.”


“It is super cheap,” Willow tried to reason, but immediately her eyes wrinkled with concern, “But doesn’t that make you kind of nervous?”


“Not really,” Tara shook her head, “It’s clean, it’s functional, the bed is even vaguely comfortable…”


She pressed down on it indicatively and Willow came over to perch on the edge.


“No memory foam mattress, I’m guessing.”


Tara didn’t really have time for Willow being grumpy but had to admit feeling a little turned on.


Willow’s pout had always done that to her. Her lips were puffed out and her eyes were dark and dangerous, even if it was just the danger of being on the other end of a scowl.


She wanted the bungee jump, and not their emotions, to be the only up and down they remembered of this day. Willow would have to get used to these types of lodgings. The place they were in right then would probably be amongst the nicest they stayed in, anyway. It was private, for one.


She casually slid sideways to where Willow was sitting and sat delicately into her lap.


“I’ll be your memory foam mattress,” she offered, caressing Willow’s plump, pouty bottom lip with her thumb, “I’ll never forget the press of your body against me.”


Willow’s eyelids grew lidded as Tara’s hips moved into her in a gentle grinding motion.


This was a pretty prime position to be in, Willow thought.


Tara’s legs spread open on top of her, just needing a single head tilt up to Tara’s lips or down to her breasts; her hands now free to roam every inch of Tara’s gorgeous upper body. Even fully clothed, Willow was immediately stimulated everywhere at once.


Forgetting her grump entirely, Willow made the best use of her optimal head positioning to begin kissing Tara’s neck; the best of both worlds. Her cheek would brush Tara’s cheek, her lips would find the swell of Tara’s breast and she got to pay special attention to that spot under Tara’s ear that made those sweet moans float into her ears.


Her teeth may have given it a little nibble and suddenly they were both tumbling back onto the bed when Tara’s hips responded a little too forcefully. They giggled as they collapsed back together.


“You wanna get some dinner or are you full of car snacks?” Tara asked, brushing some hair from Willow’s face as gravity made it fall into her eyes.


Willow wanted Tara’s hand to make its way off her face and move lower, but she had to admit a low rumbling of hunger in her stomach alongside the arousal.


“I want dinner,” she answered, turning her cheek in to nuzzle Tara, “In a minute.”


They cuddled for a few minutes before getting up to head out.


“I’ll go ask where to go to eat at the desk,” Tara said, swapping out her light sweater for something warmer.


“Guess I’ll try out that shared bathroom,” Willow replied grudgingly.


They left the room and went in different directions. Willow found the bathroom and grimaced at the row of showers. It reminded her way too much of gym class, although at least each one here had a privacy door. She'd always hung back to help gather the balls or clean up the equipment just to avoid using them with an audience. Her reputation as a Teacher's Pet actually helped her sometimes.


There was just one other young girl in there, who was applying lipstick in the mirror but the row of sinks was pretty caked in make-up. Greasy soap stains were pointed against the dark splots of fake tan and old bunched tissue were strewn under and between sinks.


Willow went into the first cubicle which she was happy to find was fairly clean compared to outside but when she was finished she found the only trace of toilet paper was a sliver the size of her pinky finger stuck to the empty roll. It wasn't surprising considering most of it seemed to be around the sinks anyway, but it was frustrating.


Not feeling like doing the cubicle shuffle in front of lipstick girl and whoever else may have walked in since she arrived, she took her phone out and brought up her chat log with Tara.


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A minute or two later there was a knock on the door and Willow recognized the Birkenstocks poking in from underneath it.


“Will?”


“Yeah,” Willow grumbled, clearly embarrassed.


A pack of tissues was pushed under the door.


“No one else is here, don’t worry,” Tara reassured, “I’ll wait outside.”


Willow finished up and washed her hands before meeting Tara outside.


“Now we know to carry tissues around,” Tara tried to joke softly when she saw the grump returned on Willow’s face.


“Is this really worth saving a few bucks?”


“It’s not a few when you multiply it over a year,” Tara replied, gently squeezing Willow’s arm, “I got good recommendations for dinner. There’s a whole al fresco style street food area with bars and restaurants and stuff. Sounds really cool.”


She dropped her hand to link her fingers with Willow and smiled.


Willow was a sucker for that smile.


“I am pretty hungry.”


“Then let’s go eat,” Tara replied, swinging around to walk them forward and out of the building.


The sun had set while they’d been inside but the streets were lit with enough bright light to get around unaided.


They’d only walked a little ways down the street when Willow’s nose scrunched up again.


“That smell is not very appetizing. How do the locals stand it?”


Tara shrugged one shoulder.


“I’m sure they get used to it. I’m kind of getting used to it already. They say some tourists miss it when they leave.”


“I’ll believe that when I smell it,” Willow replied with a grin and Tara bumped her shoulder playfully.


They walked into the main hub of the city using the directions Tara had scribbled on a pamphlet and arrived at a long street, more like a covered walkway, that had music pumping and was lit up in blue, red and green hues. Inside, restaurants and bars all bled into each other, al fresco style as Tara had been told, and a lot of people were walking around barefoot to take advantage of the naturally heated sidewalk from the geothermal activity bubbling below.


“Hey, this is cool!” Willow said as they stepped through, “Smells better too.”


They picked out a place to eat that seemed to have the most customers already present. A lot of them appeared to be Māori too, which was always a good sign when the locals liked to dine somewhere.


They self-seated and picked up the menus sitting at the table already, reading over it until their server came, one of the young Māori man in a tight white t-shirt that his bicep muscles were rippling out of, approached to take their order.


“Kia ora, my name is Te Koha. What can I get for you this evening?”


His smile was charming and he was clearly used to people feeling charmed by it.


“I’ll get the vegetarian noodles, please,” Tara asked politely, handing her menu back to him.


“Is that all you want?” Willow asked across the table.


“Uh huh,” Tara nodded.


“Okay,” Willow shrugged, “Can I get the stone grilled rib eye, please?”


Te Koha wrote it down and stuck his pen back behind his ear. He seemed curious more than annoyed that they weren't fawning over him. He, admittedly, had always done pretty well with the American tourists over the years.


“Can I recommend a local craft beer to go with your steak tonight?” he offered, “Or perhaps a signature cocktail?”


Willow stared at him, a little caught off guard.


“Can I get a… Negroni?”


“With ice?” Te Koha asked.


“Yep,” Willow nodded swiftly.


Te Koha looked at Tara, who tried to quickly read the back of the drinks menu.


“I’ll try a…cider. That’s a hard cider, right?”


“You mean alcoholic? Oh, yeah, all our ciders are alcoholic out here,” Te Koha nodded, “Would you like to try one of our elderflower and lime or strawberry pomegranate flavors?”


Tara tried to imagine each of those flavor profiles.


“I’ll try elderflower and lime?”


“Coming right up, ladies,” Te Koha said and began to back away, then peered back in curiously, “Canadians?”


Willow shook her head.


“Californians.”


Te Koha smiled to himself, seemingly amused.


“Huh.”


He directed his smile back at them and nodded cordially before weaving back through the tables.


“What’s a Negroni?” Tara asked when he was out of earshot.


“I don’t know; I heard it on a TV show,” Willow admitted and started to grin, “I kinda forgot we can legally drink here. I feel naughty.”


Her nose scrunched in confusion.


“And what’s an elderflower?”


Tara held her hands up in a shrug and they both giggled.


Their drinks were brought down on a tray by a bar hand and Tara poured her bottle of cider into a curved glass while Willow held her short, round glass and glanced around, not sure if she wanted everybody to be looking at her or nobody.


Tara held her longer glass fully around her palm, appreciating the cool condensation against her fingers. She took a sip and was pleasantly surprised. The last time alcohol passed her lips was straight vodka from the bottle at band camp. She’d enjoyed it only because the biting taste was a good mask for the taste of rejection.


“This is really nice. Whatever elderflower is, it’s delicious.”


Willow took a bigger gulp of her deep red concoction than necessary and had to suppress her coughing as she struggled to swallow.


“That is strong,” she wheezed.


She caught her breath and licked her lips, then quickly took another sip. Tara’s lips quirked upward.


“But good apparently.”


Willow frowned.


“It’s weird. Kinda bitter. Like grapefruit. But… enticing. My mouth feels tingly and naked like when you stop kissing me and I want more.”


The ice rattled against the glass as Willow lifted it to her lips again.


“Want some?” she offered Tara.


Tara shook her head.


“I’ll save my naked lips for you.”


Willow turned as red as her drink and had to use her napkin to dab at her mouth and hide her sudden influx of color.


By the time their food arrived, the restaurant and all of the surrounding ones had every table and bar stool occupied and there was a lot of cross-talk throughout the walkway as people maintained conversations from all sides. Te Koha was clearly being sent to the tables with women by the manager and Willow and Tara started to giggle together as they realized he'd tried all of his moves on them too.


Willow’s steak was brought down on the hot stone and placed in front of her with the sides in little pockets on the board the stone was sitting on. Sea salt was crackling underneath it and the meat had a beautifully caramelized char.


“See, you just slice it and cook it how you want it,” Willow explained as she cut into her steak, “They used to do it at the club.”


“I know, I served it to you once,” Tara replied, picking up her fork to twirl her noodles, “I can’t tell you how many times one of those things burned me.”


Willow blushed.


“Right. Sorry.”


“Not your fault,” Tara smiled.


Willow turned her slice of meat over on the hot stone to get it to the pinkness she desired.


“I really hated you serving me,” she said, then suddenly went wide-eyed when Tara’s eyebrow arched, “Not, no! I mean, not that you were bad at it! You weren’t, you were awesome! Just…my parents were always so rude and… tipping you is weird and I really hated that whole place. ”


Tara nodded along.


“If it makes you feel any better, your parents never tipped.”


Willow’s mouth dropped open as her slice of meat sizzled toward well done.


“Are you serious?! That’s even worse!” she said with a disgusted look on her face, “Assholes.”


She realized her meat was burning and quickly lifted it from the heat and dipped it in the sriracha mayo. She chewed thoughtfully before swallowing it.


“You know what the club motto is?”


“‘Ex nihilo nihil fit’,” Tara recited verbatim, “I had to read it on every single damn napkin I folded.”


“Do you know what it means?” Willow asked and Tara shook her head, “‘Nothing comes from nothing’. You have to work hard to succeed, basically. Most of the people there have been there for generations, inheriting the same money. Even families like mine at the very least got a mega head start. They’ve never worked hard in their lives.”


She paused and frowned.


“I guess I haven’t either.”


A silence hung in the air for a moment.


“You worked hard for your grades,” Tara supplied kindly, “And you’ve been working hard to shift those unhealthy attitudes.”


She brushed her hand atop Willow’s.


“You've been hiding, never letting it show. Always trying to keep it under control.”


Willow looked over vulnerably.


“You see me.”


Tara smiled softly.


“I do.”


Willow gulped and tried to take a sip from her glass. She realized it was empty.


“Gonna get another one of these Negronis. You want?”


Tara still had half a glass, but just nodded and briefly rubbed Willow’s arm as she passed.


A few hours later, their dinner plates had been cleared and they’d relocated to the bar where a group of locals was talking with them about what it was like living in California.


A round of tequila shots appeared from somewhere and Willow giggled as she picked up the salt cellar.


“Hey Tara,” she said, looking at her with glassy seductiveness, “C’mere.”


Tara frowned with drunken confusion but it turned into a look of arousal as Willow lifted Tara’s hand, kissed it and then shook salt onto the spot. She lifted a lime wedge and put it flesh-out between Tara’s lips, then downed the shot, licked the salt from Tara’s hands and brought her mouth close to suck on the lime, their lips painfully almost-touching.


There was a round of cheers until Willow’s head reeled back, face pinched and she spat the sour wedge into her palm. She grinned and raised her arms triumphantly and a fresh cheer went around the bar.


Te Koha cleared the shot glasses with a knowing smile. He lifted two fingers against his temple and offered a salute.


“My sister, too. Takatāpui wahine. On the house, yeah?”


Tara made some clueless nodding motion and sat on her bar stool, a little stunned by the public display. There was some lime juice still wet on her lips. She licked it off and followed Willow with her eyes as Willow hurried over to the dart board as the people who had been playing there moved away.


“I wanna try!”


Tara saw her chance and rushed to follow. She stood behind Willow and folded her arms around Willow’s waist from behind. She wasn’t sure if she was drunk on cider or the thrill of Willow’s open affection but her hands firmly held Willow there and her fingers dipped under the hem of her shirt.


“You gotta square your hips,” she whispered in Willow’s ear, aware there were eyes on them but maybe for the first time not self-conscious about being the target of strangers’ gaze.


Willow held a dart in a prime throwing position and leaned back against Tara.


“I didn’t know you knew how to play darts.”


Tara’s nose brushed the back of Willow’s neck.


“I don’t.”


Warmth spread in Willow’s stomach that burned more than any alcohol ever could and her arm jerked, sending the dart flying only a few feet in the air but still only narrowly missing hitting someone in the packed space.


“Whoops!”


Te Koha came over to them and picked up the dart from the floor as he offered them a friendly smile.


“I think you have a little too much on board for a thing this sharp, eh?”


“I’m per-fet-ly sharp,” Willow tried, then snickered and leaned into Tara to whisper, “I said per-fet-ly.”


Tara pressed her fingertips into Willow’s skin, a hidden movement under the cover of clothing.


“Maybe we should go home.”


“Noooo, I’m having fun,” Willow protested, but still felt the air rush from her lungs when Tara pressed right up against her back.


“I can think of something more fun.”


Willow was immediately convinced and spun around, pointing jaggedly toward the exit.


“This way?”


They started to rush out, but some of their new bar pals shouted them back.


“Eh, you were going to tell us about the Zodiac Killer!”


Willow stumbled wordlessly for a moment.


“Um, real bad guy. Killed some people, sent letters to newspapers with codes that were never cracked. One was. I think. Um. Never caught. Senator in Texas. Almost became president. Bad situation.”


She looked to Tara for confirmation, who nodded swiftly.


“So he’s still out there?” one of the guys asked.


“The puzzles weren’t solved?” his buddy added in.


“Never,” Willow replied, then looked to Tara wide-eyed, “We should, we should go solve them.”


Tara’s eyes widened in hesitance but she slowly agreed.


“Uh huh, yeah, we should.”


Willow grabbed Tara’s hand and started to drag her away.


“Great, we'll, uh, go check it out and uh, we'll give you a call.”


“Yeah, this could blow the whole thing wide open,” Tara couldn’t help but add in before turning her back to rush out Willow.


The walk was just about ten minutes — just a few blocks really — but they made it in seven, even factoring in the occasional stumble.


Willow pulled Tara into their room giggling and backed her right up against the wall. She kissed her again, deeper this time, letting her tongue slip into Tara’s mouth.


Tara’s hands cupped Willow’s rear and pulled her close, feeling that first press of skin at their stomachs where their shirt rode up as they rubbed against each other. She pushed Willow back until she fell down onto the bed and jumped on top, knees either side of Willow’s legs.


She leaned down to press a line of kisses along the exposed rim of skin toward her navel.


Willow let out a soft moan of pleasure and Tara felt herself respond in a particularly wet way. She sat back and started to lift her shirt over her head. With her arms trapped, her head got stuck when it didn’t come off as cleanly as she’d like.


“Will…little help?” she asked as her body twisted to free herself.


Finally, after more than a minute of fighting, her head came free and she threw the garment off her arms with a red face and mussed hair.


“Will?” she panted softly in confusion as her eyes focused again.


Willow lay beneath Tara, eyes closed and mouth open as she snored softly.


Tara slumped as her breath caught up with her and she forced two strong exhalations to calm the twisting squeeze in her stomach.


“H’okay,” she breathed as she moved off Willow and gently massaged the back of her neck to rid herself of just a little tension.


She changed into pajamas and made her way to the bathroom, where there was just one other girl at the other end of the sinks wiping off her make-up (and leaving the wipe on the sink). Tara wasn't too impressed by that either but she knew what she was getting into so just ignored it. The nice buzz from the cider helped in keeping her unbothered and she found herself smiling into the mirror as she brushed her teeth.


When she got back to the room, Willow hadn’t moved an inch, so Tara did her best to get Willow’s shoes off and the blanket out from under her to cover them both.


As Willow’s nose whistled, Tara pressed a light kiss to her cheek, wished her sweet dreams and closed her eyes beside her.



Tara hummed along with a nameless radio station as she drove back to the motel to meet Willow for the evening.


She pulled up in the parking lot and slid out of the car, locking it up before making her way to their room.


“Hey, you’re back,” she said to Willow when she stepped in and saw her lying on the bed.


She closed the door behind her and came to sit on the bed by Willow.


“This town is so stunning. Everyone is so friendly and kind. The culture is so beautiful — I saw the most amazing art today in this little village and the food, they cook it right in the ground, it’s just gorgeous, so gorgeous. They showed us their war dance—”


“The Haka?” Willow asked, her tone a little weary.


Tara nodded.


“Yes, it was magnificent. The hair is still standing on the back of my neck,” Tara replied, smiling fondly, “How was your day? Was the Lord of the Rings tour as beautiful as you thought? Did you do anything else today?”


Willow looked uncomfortable and visibly braced.


“You’re looking at it.”


Tara looked confused.


“You mean you've been resting since you got back? That's okay.”


Willow kept frowning.


“Been resting…all day?” she said, then felt an uncomfortable burn at the way Tara was looking at her, “I could barely move when I woke up, everything hurt so much. It was early when I woke up and you were already gone. Weren’t you hungover? I swear, I’m never drinking again.”


“A little, but that’s why I got up to get out in the air,” Tara replied, brow creased, “You didn’t go on your Lord of the Rings tour? You were so looking forward to it…and it was two hundred bucks.”


Willow shrugged.


“I can go tomorrow instead.”


Tara stopped and sighed. She decided not to even ask if that meant paying for it again.


“We’re supposed to be leaving tomorrow.”


“Can't we just push it a few hours?” Willow asked, leaving out the fact that she’d already rebooked the tour without checking, and yes, at the additional cost, “The bus will be back in the afternoon. We could still do the sunset on Mount Victoria like you wanted.”


Tara withheld a second sigh.


“Yes, okay,” she replied eventually, then shook her head, “So you just stayed in bed all day?”


“No,” Willow replied in a grumble, “I went to the convenience store on the corner to get food too. They had microwave pizzas…they’re like crack for hangovers. Thankfully they also had a microwave because the kitchenette here had grime everywhere and I think I would have poisoned myself.”


Tara thought about laughing but didn't. Instead, she stood and made a hand motion for Willow to do it too.


“Well, come on then.”


Willow frowned.


“Where are we going? I was kinda just hoping for cuddles.”


“I promise cuddles are in your future,” Tara replied, offering her hand to Willow.


Willow didn’t hesitate. She hoped she would never hesitate to take Tara’s hand ever again.


Tara led them back out to the car, double checked the backseat to make sure a small backpack was sitting there, and sat in on the driver’s side.


Willow looked over at her curiously as they buckled up.


“Did we say we were going to solve the Zodiac Killer’s ciphers last night? I keep getting flashes but I feel like that one must have been a dream.”


Tara pursed her lips to contain a laugh.


“We really wanted to…” she started, casting a teasing sidelong glance Willow’s way, “Be alone.”


Willow’s cheeks reddened.


“Did we…?”


“Sleep together?” Tara asked with a serious nod, “Oh, yes.”


Willow bit on the corner of her lip and Tara just couldn’t hold back that grin.


“I got a solid eight hours.”


Willow’s brow creased for a moment, then her eyes widened in horror.


“I passed out, didn’t I?”


“But very cutely,” Tara giggled, reaching over and pinching Willow’s cheek, “Adorable snores.”


Willow gently slapped Tara’s hand away, blushing more but smiling too.


“Stop…”


She shifted in her seat and looked at Tara apologetically.


“Sorry. For falling asleep.”


“It doesn’t matter,” Tara replied softly, “You must have been a lot drunker than I realized anyway. Definitely more than me. Though I'm not surprised. I looked up those Negronis this morning. It would punch my cider right out of the ring. Not to mention the tequila.”


Willow’s head fell softly back against the rest. She had a flash of doing the tequila shot and almost kissing Tara, then practically dry humping somewhere on the floor. She gulped and shifted her gaze uncomfortably out the window.


“My headache this morning sure said so.”


So did her wallet but she hadn't really cared.


“You’re about to relax like you’ve never relaxed before,” Tara replied, before a hint of a smirk played on her lips, “Well, apart from…”


Willow cleared her throat and sunk down more in the seat. She gazed aimlessly out the window as they drove out of the city. After thirty minutes, curiosity was getting the better of her.


They were driving down a gravel road and Willow looked around slightly alarmed by how far off the beaten track they seemed to be going. How could Tara even know where they were?


“Uh…where are we?”


“We’re at the payoff for the smell,” Tara replied cryptically and nodded over her shoulder, “Grab that backpack.”


Willow looked behind and snatched the bag. She opened it up and took out a towel wrapped up with other fabric.


“Are these our swimsuits?”


Tara just smiled.


A mile of rickety road, an awkward change in the backseat of an almost empty parking lot, and a short walk a couple of hundred meters down a bush path later, they arrived at a swimming hole with a waterfall.


The water fell into a stream with a large pool of water sitting beneath before it continued downstream in little rivulets. A canopy of trees surrounded it from the top of the waterfall, offering a covering of forest.


“Come feel the water,” Tara encouraged as she carefully walked into the natural hot spring; the water hot and relaxing on her muscles at first touch, “You’ll never be able to enjoy a regular old hot tub again.”


Willow looked around a little self-consciously at the other people enjoying the spring and waded in after Tara. It was like being wrapped in a hug that went with you and she sighed happily as her body became weightless.


Tara grinned over her shoulder.


“Worth it, right?”


Willow smiled and nodded.


“Very.”


They swam under the waterfall and Tara sat on a big rock beneath it. She splashed Willow as she passed, whose mouth hung open indignantly.


“Hey!”


She splashed Tara back and it soon descended into a back and forth punctuated with giggles raining down with the heavy flow of water.


Tara reached out after a heavy splash when Willow closed her eyes to shield them and gently pulled her toward her lap. Willow instinctively twisted away and when Tara mistook it for playing, trying to hold Willow in place until Willow forced herself away aggressively.


“Stop!”


Tara held her hands up, away from Willow.


“S-Sorry.”


“No, I…” Willow started, immediately regretful.


The waterfall sounded hollow as silence hung between them until eventually Willow went and sat beside Tara, her hands skimming the surface of the water as they twisted around in her lap.


“Do you remember learning to swim?”


Tara slowly turned her gaze to Willow.


“Do you mean getting thrown into the creek by Donny and my mom screaming at him while she waded in fully clothed to get me?”


“I kicked him but my little toes didn’t have much impact,” Willow replied through a sigh, “He burst my floaties anyway.”


She lifted her eyes.


“You said if I held your hands, your floaties would keep us both up. But I was still scared so you gave me your floaties and you held my hands instead.”


Her eyes closed and she narrowly missed letting a tear escape.


“Tara…”


“Hey…” Tara comforted softly without touching her.


Willow opened her glassy eyes and mouthed ‘I’m trying’.


‘I know’, Tara mouthed back.


Under the water, Willow’s hand found Tara’s and their fingers linked comfortably, familiarly.


Tara smiled and brought Willow directly under the waterfall so they could feel the cascading warmth directly on their shoulders, hopefully working out any tension that might be there.


In a brief lull of visitors when they had the whole pool to themselves, Willow momentarily pressed her body into Tara’s.


“This is really beautiful. You were right,” she whispered, “Definitely a close second.”


Tara returned the whisper in Willow’s ear.


“I didn’t say close.”


Tara swam away backward so Willow could see the cocky grin on her face and Willow contemplated how much this side of Tara belonged to her.


Tara didn’t grin like that for anyone else, didn’t open her body or her mind for anyone else, didn’t allow herself to be known the way Willow got to know her. That was a privilege Willow didn’t intend to lose.


She followed Tara until she was backed up against the rock wall and kissed her; just for a moment, a split second longer than a peck, but an extension of promise.


She backed away and did feel conscious of the new family sitting nearby but instead she focused on the sweet smile on Tara’s face and how that made her feel. Turned out, it was a hell of a lot stronger than a kernel of insecurity.


“Catch me if you can!” she challenged and quickly swam away.


They chased each other around, playing like kids until the family with actual children arrived in the water and they decided to let them have the pool to themselves.


Back at the car, Willow dried herself off with the towel and tossed it over to Tara.


“I feel invigorated.”


“Good word,” Tara said as she ruffled the ends of her hair.


Willow watched Tara toss her hair to one side and felt a quickening of her heartbeat.


“You are so beautiful.”


Tara stopped with the towel around her neck and smiled over the car.


“Angling for those cuddles?”


Willow’s nose scrunched happily.


“Always.”



Willow came running around the corner to the parking lot of the motel and rushed right up to Tara, who was leaning against the car.


“I’m sorry, I’m sorry the bus left late and then I got a little, kinda-sorta lost finding my way back here.”


“Why didn’t you text me?” Tara asked in frustration, “I thought you’d gotten into an accident or something. I’ve just been waiting here.”


Willow held up her phone with a dead screen.


“My phone died,” she explained, then popped the trunk and rooted through her backpack sitting amongst the other luggage, “And I left my power bank…here!”


She popped the cable into her phone, turned it back on and slammed the lid back down then sidled up to Tara, pressing a lingering kiss on her cheek.


“I’m so sorry.”


Tara was starting to pick up on the long cheek kiss of apology that Willow had started doling out, but damn if it didn’t work.


“We gotta go,” she said, but the exasperation was mock at best.


“I know, let’s do it!” Willow replied, speeding around to the passenger side, “I even pre-downloaded the map earlier so I am all ready.”


She had her belt on before Tara had even sat in.


“Jeez, Tara, come on,” she goaded, grinning as Tara shot her a withering look as she sat into the car.


She started the car and quickly got on the road for the journey down to the end of the island to get the ferry across to the South Island.


“Was the tour good at least?” Tara asked once she was settled comfortably, directions at the ready and the second of her road trip mix tapes playing in the background.


Willow smiled and nodded.


“Everything was so vibrant. I didn’t know green could be that beautiful.”


Tara’s eyes left the road for a moment to stare lovingly at Willow.


“I did.”


Willow blushed lightly but had to stare ahead without response lest that compliment completely overwhelm her.


“They, uh, showed us all the sets and the hobbit homes…then we got to go to the bar that’s in the movies and had lunch and these special drinks they brew. It was really fun.”


“I’m glad you had a nice time,” Tara replied, her sweet smile turning into a chuckle, “I would have been hearing about it for the rest of my life if we came all the way to New Zealand and you didn’t get to see the Hobbit Land.”


Willow didn’t miss the ‘rest of my life’ reference but it seemed entirely natural.


Her first memory was of Tara and she wanted her last memory to be of Tara too.


She didn’t know what might happen in between, but Tara was her constant.


Once they turned onto the highway, Willow’s eyes were closing and she was stifling yawns.


Tara noticed and reached over with her nearest hand, stroking Willow’s hair for a moment before returning it to the wheel.


“Tired, baby?”


Willow nodded.


“Too much grog.”


“Or did I wear you out last night?” Tara grinned.


Willow giggled sleepily, smiling widely but with her eyes closed.


“Definitely.”


Tara smiled fondly as some memories pushed to the forefront of her mind.


“Have a nap. We have a long time to go.”


Willow exhaled deeply, barely fighting it.


“Won’t you be bored?”


“No, I like driving. I find it peaceful,” Tara explained, “And it’s a straight stretch of road for hours, so I don’t need your expert navigation.”


There was no response so Tara glanced over.


“Will?”


Willow’s breath was even and she was slumped on the seat.


Tara brushed some hair from Willow’s eye, turned the tape down to a low hum and focused back on the road and the beautiful surroundings.


Or at least, the second most beautiful, she thought.

Chapter Text


Wellington


We Push And Pull Like A Magnet Do


Willow stayed in dreamland curled up on the passenger seat, imagining sunset on the hill with Tara's arm around her.


The road was smooth and so she wasn’t woken until the repeated, and eventually annoying, ping of a phone indicating incoming messages kept bouncing around the small car.


Her neck rolled to the side as her eyes opened and she lifted her hand to massage the cramp that was forming there.


The sun had moved since last Willow had last seen it and the highway had narrowed to two lanes. It was far less busy — deserted almost.


“Hey sleepyhead,” Tara greeted enthusiastically, maybe slightly bored after all of the silence, “I was going to have to wake you soon. You’ve been asleep for hours. I saw the most amazing cloud, it was huge, just a big circle but the sun was sitting right behind it so it was lit up like a giant flaming O.”


Tara smiled awkwardly when Willow didn’t respond straight away.


“Maybe you had to be there.”


“No, it sounds cool,” Willow replied quickly, then frowned when that annoying ping went off again, “Is that your phone that keeps going off? It’s not mine.”


Tara nodded.


“Yes, sorry. You can mute it if you want.”


Willow sat up, momentarily choking herself on the belt she forgot was there. She picked up Tara’s phone from where it was sitting in the cup holder between them.


She opened the screen to mute it and watched as another message came in.


“Anya?” she read and looked at Tara bewildered, “As in Xander’s…plaything Anya?”


“Xander’s girlfriend, yes,” Tara answered, slightly pointed.


Willow stared at Tara’s phone, then back up, utterly confused.


“…why is she texting you? Why does she have your number?”


Tara inhaled and exhaled the same even breath slowly.


“We’re friends. She likes to get my opinion on a lot of things.”


Willow’s eyebrows lifted right up into her hairlines.


“You’re…friends? Actual friends?”


“Not like you and I are ‘friends’,” Tara clarified.


Willow’s mouth dropped open.


“Why would you even say that?!”


“You have a history of being confused by that term,” Tara replied, tongue-in-cheek, which swiftly turned defensive with a quick glance toward the look on Willow’s face, “I’m joking.”


Willow’s arms settled tightly across her chest.


“Well apparently being friends with Anya does nothing for your humor,” she muttered, but loud enough. She knew it was loud enough.


Tara’s jaw clenched and her hands tightened on the wheel. Willow wasn't one to insult her. It really got her goat; another thing she wasn't used to experiencing, unless it was around Donny.


“Wow,” she breathed.


“What?” Willow snapped.


“Nothing,” Tara replied with elongated annoyance, “Absolutely nothing.”


Pained silence hung where it had once been peaceful and lingered for a few tense seconds.


“You know, you are so jealous,” Tara exploded from nowhere, although in reality it was many years a-coming. Her chest visibly heaving with anger while her eyes remained hyper-focused ahead, “You’ve always been jealous of every meaningful friendship I’ve ever had. I avoided making other friends just to be open to whatever emotional whim you couldn’t deal with next.”


Willow scoffed derisively.


“Oh, I’m sorry I’m disrupting your ‘meaningful’ friendship with Anya, the woman who knows nothing but her own baser sexual instinct and how to use the pages from ‘Tact for Dummies’ as fire kindling.”


“You must have learned from her because ‘tactful’ is the last word I’d use to describe you right now,” Tara retorted harshly and tensed up everywhere.


She wasn’t a confrontational person, especially with Willow.


Willow’s lips pressed so tightly together they almost disappeared and her eyes stayed peeled angrily. She shook her head several times before throwing her hands in the air.


“What is this?! We don’t ever fight and now we’re fighting over Xander’s stupid girlfriend?!”


Tara blinked heavily.


“She’s not stupid, she’s my friend.”


Willow just turned her body as best she could to angle her back to Tara and allow herself to watch the rolling hills outside the window.


A little while later, her own phone buzzed between her legs, startling her slightly. She checked the screen quickly and instantly paled.


She glanced over her shoulder, and then fully, at Tara, whose knuckles had barely loosened their grip on the wheel.


She gulped and bit on her lower lip.


“You’re going to hate me.”


Tara’s fingers straightened out for a moment before she adopted a looser hold and she heaved out a breath of release.


“Willow, I don’t hate you, I love you, I just—”


“We missed the exit,” Willow blurted quickly.


Tara’s head snapped toward Willow.


“Are you kidding me?” she raged, her face turning red in contrast to Willow’s white, “All you had to do was tell me when to turn off. It’s all you had to do!”


Willow blanched at the harsh tone.


“Why are you being like this?! This isn’t you, this isn’t—”


“What?!” Tara challenged loudly.


Willow’s mouth opened to yell back but then she suddenly saw a blur of color from the corner of her eye.


“Tara!” she screamed, looking ahead in horror.


Tara’s gaze quickly averted to where Willow’s was and she spotted a single red car sitting motionless as Tara barreled toward it, having veered naturally to the position she was used to driving in when her concentration had been diverted.


The woman behind the wheel was just staring in shock with the car stalled and Tara just narrowly missed her by swerving back into her lane, luckily with no other vehicles to avoid.


Willow clutched her chest as her heart beat wildly out of her chest.


She swallowed a jab about Tara calling her a bad driver as they pulled over into the shoulder. She heard the skid of the other car as it got the hell away from them and watched Tara’s head drop onto the wheel.


She was visibly shaking.


Willow wasn’t sure if a comforting hand would be a help or a hindrance, so she kept her arms to herself and her mouth shut.


Eventually, Tara lifted her head and her eyes were clearly full of unshed tears.


“How long will it take us to loop?”


Willow blinked several times to process, then picked up her phone in a daze and looked at the re-routing options.


“Um, there’s traffic…m-maybe an hour or more.”


Tara exhaled a slow breath.


“We’re going to miss the boat.”


“There’s another late night one,” Willow replied softly, having already anticipated the problem and checked in the moments since, “Hey, we’ll save money not having to stay anywhere tonight.”


“Fine, whatever,” Tara replied, not curt but exhausted, “Just find the nearest place I can get a coffee.”


Willow nodded silently and did a quick search on the map app.


“The next exit is less than a mile. There’s a gas station right off it.”


Tara turned the engine back on, swiped at her eyes and pulled back into the lane once a couple of oncoming cars had passed and left the road plenty clear for her.


She kept watch for the exit but Willow did quietly tell her when to turn and where to find the gas station.


Tara parked and stepped out of the car, but when Willow tried to follow she found Tara had locked her in. She banged on the window.


“Seriously, Tara?!”


Tara turned, looked at her for a moment, then pressed the unlock button. The shaken look on her face made Willow think maybe it hadn’t been intentional.


Willow let herself out, took in a long breath of air and walked around to the other side of the car where Tara was trying to pump gas. She was fighting with the pump and losing so Willow put her hand gently on top of Tara’s and took the head.


“I got it,” she said softly, “It’s okay.”


Tara wordlessly handed the keys over and went into the store, getting an unlidded cup of black coffee and sitting down in the seating area with her head in her hands.


A few minutes later, Willow followed. She paid for the gas and soda for herself and went to sit opposite Tara at the small square table. She was hungry but she didn’t want to just scoff something in front of Tara like this. Even if it seemed like a long, long time since lunch at The Green Dragon Inn.


Tara finished her coffee and seemed to come together more, color returning to her cheeks and the shake in her fingers steadying.


Willow reached across and cautiously held Tara’s arm, her hand sliding down to link their fingers. Tara closed her hand in Willow’s and hung on, taking some strength from it.


“Do you want anything to eat?” Willow asked after a moment, and not just for her own gratification. Tara had been driving for hours, “They have a sandwich bar and a hot food section too.”


Tara nodded.


“Yeah, okay. Will you just pick something out for me?”


“Sure,” Willow agreed, squeezing Tara’s hand before letting go.


She returned minutes later with a tray and placed one of them in front of Tara along with a can of cherry cola.


“Lasagna okay? I got it with a side salad.”


“Thanks,” Tara replied, picking up the packet with a napkin and plastic utensils.


Willow frowned and held the other plate up.


“You can have my BLT if you want. I don’t mind.”


“No, this is great,” Tara replied, trying to offer a weak smile, “Thank you. I’m starving.”


“I figured,” Willow nodded, “Well there’s no rush so…take your time. Level out that blood sugar.”


Tara cut up her lasagna but was distracted. After a minute, she looked back up at Willow, eyes welled.


“Willow, I’m so sorry. I almost—”


Willow reached back over and took Tara’s hand.


“Everything is okay. We’re okay. No one was hurt, the car is fine. Everything is okay.”


Tara cracked the can on her soda, both wishing and thankful that it wasn’t something stronger, and downed half of it in one go.


“I bet you’d be great at beer pong,” Willow commented with a smile.


Tara smiled too and finally paid proper attention to her food.


They both ate slowly but hungrily, focused on eating and feeling more human.


“This is way better than the last gas station meal I had,” Willow commented as she scrunched up her nose, “I learned the hard way that sushi should never have a use by date seven days in the future. And also that use by dates lie.”


“Hard to give sympathy for that one,” Tara replied, a more real crooked smile venturing out on her face.


“Fair,” Willow replied wryly.


By the time they were heading back to the car, it was dark and Willow was worried.


“Do you want me to drive?”


Tara shook her head.


“You’re not on the insurance.”


Willow nodded slowly.


“Are you okay?”


Tara nodded back.


“Yeah, I’m okay.”


Willow tossed her the keys and Tara opened the car for them. Once they sat in, they figured out the best way to get back toward the city.


“We missed sunset,” Willow said guiltily, “We’ll still have time to kill once we get back on the right road. I could look for somewhere to hang out for a while?”


Tara sighed tiredly.


“I read that the cars line up early for the boat, so I think we should just go there. We can sleep quicker if we’re first on. We’ll just be sitting around anyway.”


“Yeah, that sounds good. Wind down,” Willow agreed, “And I just got us more snacks and drinks in there in case we need them.”


Tara just reached over and briefly squeezed Willow’s thigh, before turning the car back on and setting off again.


Willow couldn't quite smile, but did feel comforted by the interaction.



Tara drove with great care as they slowly navigated the night streets once they finally arrived at Wellington and over to the harbor.


She was hyper-aware of her position on the road, her eyes peeled and tiring quickly.


She barely saw any of the city she'd hoped to spend the evening in but they would have to pay extra if they didn't return this car on time so there was no option to stretch another night out of it.


At the very least, the drive along the harbor offered some scenic beauty to take with them.


“Wow, it’s beautiful,” Willow commented as they drove toward the docking station on the water, “Look at that reflection of the moon.”


“Stunning,” Tara agreed, the weariness evident in her voice.


She would have happily used the wheel as a pillow at that point but just about managed to keep her eyes open long enough to check them in on the ferry and get the car secured on the lower deck.


Upstairs there was inside and outside seating, and Tara just collapsed into the first chair she found inside. The chairs were reminiscent of airplane seating, but there was more leg room and she was asleep in seconds as soon as her body stretched out.


Willow took off her own sweater and put it over Tara, holding onto her own arms for warmth as the sea breeze gusted through the open doors. As more people got on board, staff started giving out blankets and Willow got one for each of them.


She sat beside Tara and rested her head back so she could look sideways at Tara’s face. Her tired lines evened out leaving her skin clear and unblemished with worry.


She looked so soft.


She always had.


Willow remembered being a small child and nuzzling into Tara’s neck at sleepovers because she was softer than any blanket. It had made Tara giggle, then.


She still giggled now, Willow thought, when her head lost itself in Tara’s neck.


So much had changed, yet so much stayed the same.


She’d always been drawn to Tara and she was an idiot to think she could ever deny it.


“I’m sorry,” she said, quieter than a whisper and took a fistful of blanket for something to hold onto as she gazed out the large windows to the outside deck.


Tara woke a few hours later, barely remembering falling asleep, to a much fuller but pretty silent cabin. Someone was brushing their fingers against her cheek and she was very grateful to see it was Willow when her eyes finally focused.


“Are we there?” she asked gruffly, lifting her head to get her bearings.


“Not quite,” Willow replied quietly, then offered her hand, “Come with me?”


Tara wanted to take every second of sleep she could get.


“Will…”


“Please?” Willow pleaded hopefully.


Tara couldn’t refuse and started to stand up, catching the blanket and Willow’s sweater sitting underneath it before it fell to the floor. She looked at it in confusion.


“Why do I have your sweater?” she asked, looking up at Willow, “And why don’t you have a blanket? It’s freez—”


Willow put a finger against Tara’s lips but accepted the blanket back and covered herself with it. Most everyone else was sleeping or playing on their phones but a few people were already sitting on the outside deck in the twilight. Willow led them past them and to a little spot near the bow where she’d laid her blanket out for them to sit.


“I know it’s not sunset…” Willow said apologetically, “And I know it’s not on top of a mountain…”


Tara glanced out over the water and the alpine landscape beginning to show against the horizon of the rising sun. She realized why Willow had woken her and briefly brushed Willow’s thigh affectionately.


“I’ve always preferred sunrise anyway.”


Willow smiled and snuggled into Tara’s side. Tara put her arm over Willow’s shoulders and they just watched the gradual ascent of the sun and its glistening reflection in the water.


“About…before,” Willow said when she thought they’d both woken up enough to talk, “I was being a jerk. I just…”


She stopped and sighed.


“I don’t get it. She just seems so…not you. But friendships are weird; lots of people would say mine are too. And I never want to stand in the way of you having a friend. I never knew that I was.”


Tara sighed too.


“It’s not your fault that I made certain choices,” she said, shaking her head to herself, “And it wasn’t like I…I didn’t think ‘oh I can’t talk to this person in case Willow gets jealous’.”


Willow turned to look up at Tara.


“What was it? So I understand.”


“You know, I don’t even know. It wasn’t conscious,” Tara replied, biting her lip as her eyes glazed for a moment, “I guess so much of our history has been sub-conscious.”


She was quiet and pensive before speaking again.


“When we started school and got put in different classes, I was so upset. I got into the habit of waiting for you to come out at recess but you would always stay in. You had that special job, what was it?”


Willow pursed her lips guiltily.


“Teacher’s Helper.”


“That’s the one,” Tara nodded, “I guess I left it too long because then everyone’s friend groups were formed. And then the years just passed and even when the teachers intervened and told the kids to talk to me, I was too shy to talk back.”


Willow’s brow creased.


“You were never shy like that with me, I never…“ she said helplessly, “And you never said anything. At home.”


Tara just smiled.


“Home had you. I was always happy when I was around you,” she said sincerely, “And things changed in high school.”


Willow nodded slowly.


“They sure did.”


Tara glanced upward for a moment, thoughtful, then back down to Willow.


“Y’know, I didn’t hold back socially because I needed to be available to you…I held back because I wanted to be available to you. When I thought all friendships were supposed to feel like you…there could just never be a comparison. It was only when I realized how I really felt about you that I could value other friendships.”


Willow frowned as she thought about how she’d taken the literal opposite approach with Xander and how she’d messed them all around in the process.


“Teacher’s Helper wasn’t a real job,” she blurted, then looked away embarrassed, “I made it up. I needed an excuse to not come outside.”


Tara silently offered her time to continue and Willow felt like her stomach was being dragged up through her throat as a vivid memory played out in her mind.


Tears pricked and she felt like a child again, that child. She looked away to hide it.


“I think I called you my girl-boyfriend or something to that effect and Cordelia picked up on it,” she said with such contrasting casualness she may as well have been talking about the weather, “Thus started her bullying career.”


Tara, of course, heard even the barest quiver in Willow’s voice and silently held her tighter without demanding anything.


“So you were protecting me from her?” she asked softly.


Willow scoffed.


“You know, even a few weeks ago I would have let you believe that to give myself an ego boost,” she said self-deprecatingly, “But no. I was protecting myself.”


She bit her bottom lip so hard it almost bled.


“I remember her laughing at me so vividly, remember wanting to run away,” she said, her breathing growing gradually heavier, “Remember feeling so ashamed because ‘Willow wants to marry a girl’.”


Immediately Tara was hit with the heaviness of Willow’s words and how it made so many things suddenly click into place; like opening the doorway to a part of Willow’s soul she’d never seen before and getting hit with the weight of everything inside before she could walk through.


“Oh, Will,” she said on an exhale, her eyes closing but her arm remaining strong.


Willow blinked several times, slightly stunned by how she was feeling. She’d buried that so much so that no one could hurt her more with it, but sharing it with Tara made her feel like a weight was lifted. Now when she remembered she could see it happening, but all she felt was Tara’s arm wrapped around her, keeping her safe.


This had gone so wildly away from what she intended when she asked Tara to sit outside with her.


“So, um, what I’m saying is,” she said with a monstrous clearing of her throat, “If Anya is your friend, then I support that.”


Tara inhaled, taking in all of the information that had been shared and exhaling the emotion.


“Thank you.”


“And let’s let the cute robot voice guide us from now on,” Willow suggested, finally turning her head back to Tara with a smile.


Tara tenderly kissed the corner of Willow’s mouth, a discreet move that couldn’t be picked up by anyone even if they were looking their way.


“I think that’s best.”


Willow noted the respectful gesture and how Tara had made it feel so intimate. She turned her head in the crook of Tara’s neck. She nuzzled and Tara giggled quietly.


Willow smiled.


“Go get some more sleep?”


Tara shook her head.


“No. Let’s ride it out together.”


Willow opened her mouth to speak right as a ray of light lit up Tara’s face and shone on her like she was heaven-sent.


“Baby,” she said almost imperceptibly, “You… light up my world like nobody else. I hope…I hope you know that. Even when I’m…”


She swallowed and Tara just smiled.


“It’s nice to hear.”


Willow nodded, understanding.


She settled against Tara’s side and watched the rest of the sunrise as it played out across the face of the woman she loved.


She thought she might finally be ready to stop being ashamed of it.

Chapter Text


Christchurch


Remember Those Walls I Built?
Well, Baby, They're Tumbling Down



Ah, home, let me go hooooome! Home is wherever I'm with you!


Willow laughed as she fell back against the passenger seat, taking in multiple breaths having expelled so much from singing at the top of her voice with not a care in the world for how she sounded.


There was a clicking sound as the cassette finished and Willow frowned through the panting.


“Aw, the tape is over. That was our last one.”


“It’s okay, we’re almost there,” Tara said, a finger lifting from the wheel to point out signs for Christchurch, “I’ll leave you at the bus station with the luggage so you can put it in the locker. I’ll drop the car off and meet you back there. Okay?”


“Got it,” Willow replied, breath finally evening out, “Better gather up my junk.”


She leaned down to get her assorted snack wrappers and promptly banged her head when the car suddenly jolted and screeched.


“Ow.”


“Sorry,” Tara replied, taking her foot off the accelerator.


“Lucky you’re cute enough to forgive easily,” Willow replied with a grin, “Even if the only piece of junk around here isn’t the stuff littering the floor.”


“Are you talking about my butt?” Tara challenged.


Willow’s mouth dropped open.


“No, I—!” she stopped and saw Tara’s crooked grin quirking up on one side, “Jerk.”


She turned her head to look out her own window.


“If I was talking about your butt I would have said piece of sexy.”


She knew Tara’s cheeks were blushing without looking and grinned in victory.


Her grin slowly faded as they moved off the highway and into the city.


So much land that had clearly been occupied once lay barren. Buildings were half-built, some partially destroyed and empty spaces remained, disorientating in their surroundings of the areas of the city that had been rebuilt.


“God, I…” she had to stop and swallow, mouth dry, “I forgot about the earthquake.”


Tara nodded solemnly.


“It’s so confronting,” she said quietly, “I know we’ve had a shake or two back home, but…nothing like this. The worst I’ve seen is a cereal box falling to the floor.”


Willow shook her head.


“Me too. I can’t even imagine.”


Willow reached across and gripped Tara’s shoulder, squeezing it and letting her thumb caress Tara’s upper arm. She kept her hand there, grounding her until they arrived at the bus station. Tara idled the car, missing the protestations of the engine as she hopped out to help get the luggage on the curb so Willow could bring it to the storage locker.


“Will you be okay?” Tara asked through the open window as she belted back up in the driver’s seat, “I’ll only be a few minutes. The rental place is just around the corner.”


Willow rested her arms on the windowpane and leaned in to drop a quick kiss on Tara’s cheek.


“I’ll be fine, sexy-butt.”


Tara wasn’t sure whether to be embarrassed or thrilled and the smile she offered ended up an unusual combination of both. She could hear Willow chuckling as she drove away and Willow thought she could almost see the steam from Tara’s cheeks as the car sped down the street.


She looked back at the luggage with her hands on her hips and worked out how to get it all into the bus station and over to the luggage storage lockers. She was weighed down at all angles and precariously wheeling along one bag with her pinky finger but she finally waddled everything over to where she needed to go.


“Damn,” she puffed out a breath as she gratefully dropped everything from her person, “I am not cut out for weightlifting.”


A man opening the locker next to her glanced over and Willow smiled back awkwardly.


“Just chatting to myself about my complete lack of muscle tone. I do that sometimes.”


He nodded his head and secured his headphones back over his ears.


“Good to know I’m a loon on every continent,” Willow muttered as she packed their things into the locker.


She had just closed the door on it when she felt an unexpected tug on her arm.


“Run.”


Willow spun around, surprised to see Tara there so quickly and so out of breath.


“Wha…?”


“Run,” Tara repeated insistently and dragged Willow along by the hand without giving her much choice.


Willow did her best to keep up as they sprinted across the station, ran down an escalator and nearly knocked into people along the way, only stopping when they were hidden behind a column on a lower platform.


Willow placed a palm on the wall and hunched over to catch her breath.


“God Tara,” she panted, her other hand holding her side to prevent a muscle cramp, “What the frilly heck? Why are we running?”


Tara leaned back against the column and closed her eyes.


“The car crapped out on the way in. It just gave in when I was in the parking lot. I was going to say something but they gave me back my deposit while the guy went out to bring it in and I heard a ‘hey!’ and I just ran.”


“They chased you?!” Willow asked, eyes wide.


“I didn’t stick around long enough to find out,” Tara answered, wiping a hand over her brow, “It could have bankrupted me, I just reacted. Oh my god.”


Willow rolled her eyes.


“I told you it was a piece of junk.”


“It got us here, didn’t it?” Tara retorted, resting her hands on her thighs.


Willow pursed her lips.


“Don’t they have your credit card?”


Tara shook her head.


“No, I used cash. That’s why we had to run.”


Willow looked Tara up and down, contemplating what she’d done.


“I can’t believe you did that. You never do stuff like that,” she said, her voice low and admittedly turned on, “That’s so…bad. Even if we paid more to rent it than the thing is actually worth.”


Tara picked up on the tone and raised her chin, looking down at Willow seductively.


“I can be bad when I want to be.”


Willow had always thought, and admired, the fact that Tara was a paradigm of good; a kind person who made the world better just by existing. That was the person she’d fallen in love with, had always loved, and always would love but by god if she wasn’t turned on by the brief flirtation with trouble.


She looked around. The platform was empty. She took a step forward and looped a finger into Tara’s belt loop.


“Hey, do you want to go somewhere and—”


“Yes,” Tara interrupted.


Willow felt a quiver shoot between her legs.


“You don’t know what I was going to say.”


“I know what you were going to say,” Tara replied, soft and evocative.


Willow felt fireworks go off in her belly.


With a quick look around, it was her turn to drag Tara across the station until she found them a bathroom. She brought them in the door but immediately stepped back when she was assaulted with the dirt, unpleasant smells, and some very suspicious stains.


“Yuck, okay…nope,” she declared definitively before suddenly having a brainwave, “Come with me.”


She took them back upstairs and out of the station, causing Tara to have a good look around to make sure there were no angry men in rental car logoed polo shirts running around with pitchforks. She was suitably relieved that it wasn’t the case but didn’t even realize Willow was taking them into a fancy hotel lobby until they were walking inside.


She opened her mouth to object because this definitely did not look like the kind of establishment that might rent by the hour and there was no way she would let either of them pay for a whole night when they were leaving in a few hours anyway.


But Willow just kept walking until they found the equally fancy restroom, complete with potpourri, gleaming surfaces, and a huge couch.


Willow checked all of the stalls were empty then double backed to lock the door.


“I saw us pass this place on the way in. I’ve been in so many fancy hotel bathrooms that have a sofa and I always wondered why.”


She clutched Tara’s shirt and walked backward until she sat on the plush couch.


“Now I know.”


She pulled Tara into her lap and into a kiss, sliding her arms around Tara’s neck to keep her close.


Tara moaned into Willow’s mouth and pressed herself into Willow’s body. Her lips were greedy like she’d been in a drought, desperately coming back for more even when they parted for less than a second.


Willow’s hands dropped down to Tara’s waist and she brought Tara down so she could move on top of her.


The couch was particularly comfortable, definitely more so than the ferry seats they’d bunked down in and probably even more so than the motel bed. If Tara’s body wasn’t raging with a sudden rush of hormones and Willow’s thigh wasn’t pressing down somewhere very insistently, she was pretty sure she’d have fallen asleep easily.


But Willow’s thigh was there and Tara’s pants were thin and things were getting really out of control, really fast.


She felt a pulse radiate between her legs and her hands clutched at the back of Willow’s shirt. Willow’s leg thrust once more and Tara’s head fell over the arm of the sofa and she emitted a long groan.


Willow, rosy-cheeked and grinning, pressed her hips right into Tara when her head popped back up.


“Did you just—”


The doorknob of the restroom door suddenly rattled as someone tried to come in.


They both froze until it stalled again, then released a common breath. But the relief only lasted a few moments until the handle moved again, more aggressively this time.


“Hello?” a male voice called out, accompanied by the sound of a hand slapping the door from the other side, “Hello, is anyone in there?”


“Uhhh,” Willow said, eyes widening.


She jumped up and looked around, then pulled Tara up too and pointed to a stall. Tara’s brow creased in confusion, so Willow pushed her into the nearest stall and closed the door over.


She made a quick check in the mirror to make sure she looked as inconspicuous as possible before going over to the door and flicking the lock. She made a show of yanking it open.


“So weird!” she exclaimed, making an exaggerated ‘phew’ motion, “Door just jammed.”


There was a middle-aged woman in a tennis outfit that looked like it had never seen the inside of a tennis court staring at her with narrow eyes and a man in a tailored suit and a nametag declaring him to be a manager waiting on the other side.


“Are you a guest here?” the manager asked, also adopting a narrow-eyed stance.


Willow’s lips closed in on themselves.


“Ummm…”


The manager crossed his arms over his chest.


“I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”


“Okay then,” Willow replied speedily and then raised her voice loudly, “Leaving now. Walking out to the front of the hotel. Heading on out in that general direction.”


The manager peered inside when Willow moved past him and nodded that everything seemed in order. He apologized to the woman and returned to the front desk.


Tara stayed, feeling somewhat trapped in the stall for several minutes until she heard a flush of the toilet and the turning on and off of a faucet. She anticipated her escape too early as the woman remained at the mirror when she came out.


Tara blushed even further and quickly scrubbed her hands for show.


“This establishment used to have standards,” the haughty woman muttered and Tara stuffed her hands in her pockets and got out of there as quick as she could.


She looked up and down the street when she stepped out of the building, but couldn’t see Willow anywhere. Then she felt a tug on her arm and she was pulled around the corner where Willow collapsed into her, laughing.


It took Tara a moment, but her laughter soon joined and they both had to use the wall for support to stay upright.


“Oh my god,” Tara breathed, her legs squirming as she felt a reminder of what they were doing before getting caught.


Willow straightened up properly.


“I don’t think I’ve ever run, fled or skedaddled so much in my entire life.”


Her hands flattened over her stomach, the drive-through breakfast they’d gotten at the break of dawn long forgotten.


“Are you hungry?”


“Yeah, I’m starving,” Tara nodded, pulling herself together, “We only have a few hours. Why don’t we find somewhere to eat and just walk around, see the city?”


“But avoiding this hotel or the car rental place,” Willow advised wisely.


Tara smiled.


“Exactly.”


“I’m in,” Willow agreed happily.


“I read about a place that does waffle burgers,” Tara suggested coyly.


Willow’s eyes widened.


“Sold.”


Tara shyly offered her hand. Willow took it in a swing and smiled over at her. She didn’t look around to see if anyone was watching them.


After a quick Google, they discovered the burger restaurant was just a city block away. This rumbled the hunger in their stomachs and they made their way there just as it was opening for lunch. With their pick of seats, they got a cozy circular corner booth which they sat in on the same side.


After a quick look through the menu they placed their burger orders; fried chicken for Tara and maple bacon and beef for Willow. They opted to share curly fries and a strawberry shake and looked and felt like two giggling tweens on their first date as they settled in.


“Good god, that's a lot of shake,” Tara said when their milkshake was delivered, piled high with whipped cream, fresh strawberries and even cotton candy.


“It’s delicious!” Willow replied, already twirling some cotton candy around a finger to pop into her mouth.


Tara located one of the straws hiding amongst the toppings and took a languid sip of the thick mixture.


It was creamy and syrupy and so sweet it hurt her teeth but she could only agree with Willow.


“It is delicious,” she smiled, just as sweet as the receptacle from which she was drinking, “I hope there’s something green on the burgers. Leafy green, not… gummy green.”


Willow laughed and playfully dotted Tara’s nose with cream. Tara scrunched her nose up and waved it about, making Willow giggle more. She leaned in and kissed it off and then kissed Tara's lips quickly; both actions done in the same moment, a split second.


She settled back in her seat, still smiling happily. Tara licked her lips and looked at Willow adoringly.


“You taste… like strawberries.”


“Makes sense,” Willow replied, grinning from the side of her mouth.


Their burgers were brought down to them, both encased in pillowy waffles instead of a traditional bun.


“Leafy green!” Willow announced when she saw some romaine lettuce sticking out, “Totally offsets the rest of it.”


“Oh yes, definitely,” Tara nodded seriously, with an accompanying crease in her brow that Willow found oh so adorable.


They giggled together again and didn’t see an older waiter smile at them fondly as he passed by.


Neither of them thought they’d be able to finish their monstrous serving when the plates first touched down, but there wasn’t a single crumb left on their plates when they were finished.


“Y’know, I was gonna go chicken,” Willow said as she rested her hands on her stomach, “Chicken and waffles, it’s a classic right? And you know how I like the classics.”


Tara sent her a secret grin that actually made Willow blush as she matched her smile.


“But then I said to myself, ‘Self!’,” she said importantly, “I said you’re on the other side of the world! Push the boat out. Try something new. And I did. And I was triumphant.”


Tara ran her hands down Willow’s arm.


“You’re such an inspiration,” she said with mock exaggeration.


“Seriously, it was so good,” Willow gushed with bright eyes, “Do you think they’d do something like that at the Doublemeat Palace at home?”


“They could do something like it,” Tara replied helpfully.


Willow’s nose scrunched.


“Yeah, you’re right,” she sighed, “Y'know, I had a dream once set in the DMP where an old lady had this thing like a giant eel come out of her head.”


Tara all but shuddered.


“That's disgusting! What did it look like?”


Willow looked at Tara wryly.


“Well, let's put it this way: if I wasn't gay before…”


Willow hadn’t said that word yet but Tara didn’t draw attention to it. She just squeezed Willow’s knee under the table and stole the last curly fry.


“Betrayal!” Willow said with a huge grin and mocked being stabbed through the heart, “Though those that are betray'd do feel the treason sharply, yet the traitor stands in worse case of woe.”


“The course of true love never did run smooth,” Tara countered and Willow smiled toward her lap for a moment.


Tara squeezed Willow’s shoulders from behind and gently pushed her.


“Come on, let’s go pay. We need to walk all of that food off.”


“Aww, but I ate all my lettuce,” Willow pouted, then bumped Tara’s shoulder playfully.


They paid separately and walked back out onto the street, where they noticed a tram going by. It was old-fashioned in the style of what it would have looked like in the 1800s with a red and yellow color scheme to make it stand out.


After watching people just jump on, they followed and took seats that allowed them to look out on the city as they looped around.


On their journey, the mix of new and old architecture in the still-rebuild