Menorah Tales

by JustSkipIt

Copyright © 2006

Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy own Willow and Tara and the Buffyverse.
Distribution: The Mystic Muse /
Feedback: Please leave feedback on The Kitten Board.
Spoilers: None.
Author's Note: Flashbacks indented, thoughts italicized, dreams indented & italicized.
Webhost's Note: Special thanks goes to Chris Cook of Through the Looking Glass, MKF and Artemis for the graphic at the top of the page. Thanks, Chris!
Pairing: Willow/Tara

Summary: This story is a continuation to Friendly Friends.

Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9    Part 10    Part 11

Part 2
About a year later

Willow fluffed the pillows on her bed again and then went over to the desk to straighten her desk pad. She used her fingers to ensure that the pad was perfectly centered on her desk, that her notebooks were stacked from largest (on bottom) to smallest (on top), and that her 8 different colored pens were just up- desk of the notebooks and arranged according to the color spectrum, red on one end, violet on the other. Then she crossed to the window and looked out onto the street. No cars were coming and she looked at the time again. 6:42. It wasn't like she was late, like they were late. The movie didn't even start until 7:35.

It was just that she hadn't seen Tara, hadn't seen Faith and Tara she corrected herself, since yesterday afternoon. Yes, the Sabbath was a time for family and rest but it was 57 minutes past sundown so the day of rest was over and she still hadn't seen Tara today. She looked around the room once again then went into the bathroom to wash her face. She thought she'd seen a blemish, heck a zit, earlier in the day and hoped it was gone now. After a good scrubbing she went back into her room and looked out the window again. Seeing headlights, she picked up her jacket and exited her room, being sure to pull the door closed.

"Your friends are here," Willow's mother called up the stairs just as the redhead reached the top.

"I saw." Willow she bounced breathlessly down the stairs.

"Tara's mom is dropping you off at the movies, right?"

Willow sighed loudly. "Yes, mom."

"And she picked up Faith?"

Willow rolled her eyes theatrically. "Yes."

A car horn sounded out front and Willow started to pull open the door. "Your father will pick you up at 9:40 in front of the theater."

Willow started out the door before stopping and turning back toward her mother. "But we can light the candles when we get back right? Even though it's totally late?"

"Yes, darling." Shelia said more to Willow's back then anything else.

Willow leaned in through Tara's rolled-down window. "Hi, Mrs. Maclay. Thanks for taking us to the movies."

"Of course, Willow. Please get in before you freeze."

Willow quickly opened the door and climbed into the back seat with Faith.

"Hi, Willow," Tara greeted her friend.

"Yeah, hi, Red."

"Hi," Willow answered.

"Did we pick the movie yet?" Faith wanted to know.

A quick discussion between the three girls resulted in their choosing a romantic comedy staring Hugh Grant. Mrs. Maclay pulled over to the curb among the countless other cars similarly disgorging teenagers. "Willow, your father is going to pick you girls up?"

"Yes, ma'am," the redhead answered respectfully.

"Ok, Tara have a good night."

Tara walked quickly around the car to place a kiss on her mother's cheek. "Thanks, Mom." She started to walk away but instead turned back toward the car. "I love you," she whispered.

The three girls watched Mrs. Maclay merge into the traffic and drive off with a wave of her hand. "She looks good, T," Faith said as she patted her friend on the back and they began walking into the theater.

"Yeah, I thought so too," Willow enthused.

Tara looked at her feet for a moment. "You r-really thought so?"

"Oh yeah, absolutely!" Faith said. "No doubt about it. Is she feeling better?"

"She says so but…," Tara trailed off as they approached the ticket window, each girl pulling out money to pay for her own ticket.

Once inside the crowded theater and having had their tickets torn in half, Willow looked around. "I need to pee."Oh that's smooth. I need to pee? How about 'excuse me?'

Tara giggled. "Me too."

"TMI, girls," Faith said laughingly. "I'll get the popcorn." They agreed on the size of popcorn and sharing a large drink before splitting up.

"Are you ok?" Willow asked as she held open the door. She wondered if Tara was worried about her mom or maybe offended that Willow used the wordpee. "Do you think we shouldn't have come?"

Tara saw the worried look on Willow's face and looked quickly around the bathroom. No one else was inside and she quickly reached out to touch the back of the redhead's hand. "I'm here with my best f-friends. What could be w-wrong?" She attempted a smile but didn't really think that the redhead bought it.

The girls emerged from their stalls simultaneously and washed their hands. Just as they were finishing Cordelia and Harmony entered the room. The well- dressed pair didn't even toss an insult toward their nerdier classmates, insulting them by not even speaking. Willow watched them and looked at Tara to see her half-smile on her face. After looking at each other for a second, both girls started laughing and left the restroom.

They were still laughing as they spotted Faith across the room and walked over to take the drink from her. As they arrived they heard another voice. "Hey, Faith. Hi, Willow, Tara."

Faith was the first to greet their visitor. "Hi, Jimmy. Hi, Frank. Where's Cordy and Harmony?"

Willow glanced at Tara to see the blonde starting to laugh again and quickly looked away to keep herself from joining in. They both noticed Faith giving them a strange look but she didn't say anything.

"So, that was a really great shot you made Wednesday night to win the game," Jimmy said.

"Thanks. I was in the right place at the right time." Faith tried to blow off the compliment.

"I wish I'd be in the right place at the right time for 24 points and 7 rebounds," Frank teased.

"You guys looked good," Faith disagreed.

As the three ball-players discussed their games from the week, Tara attempted to blend into the floor. She couldn't play sports to save her life and even though she went to the games to see Faith, she just couldn't get excited about something as mundane as a basketball game. She smiled as she thought about the best part of every game – Willow sitting next to her carrying on a running commentary. It didn't matter the subject – the game, her classes, why is the foul line called the foul line? – it seemed Willow could go on and on forever with her questions and theories. It was Tara's favorite part of high school. Her favorite part of …anything.

"And we're only on JV," Jimmy was saying as Tara tuned in to the conversation again.

"Yeah, when was the last time a Freshman made varsity?"

Harmony's voice interrupted the speculation. "Are you guys ready to go in? We want to get good seats." Again neither girl graced Faith, Tara, or Willow with so much as a glance.

"Well, we'll see you around school," Jimmy said as he took Cordelia's hand and began walking into the theater.

"Bye. Enjoy your movie," Frank added.

"That was a s-surprise," Tara said, nodding her head at the foursome ahead of them, as the three girls started into the theater.

"They're nice guys," Faith said, "Is this row ok?" All three girls sat down near the center of the row. "They just have terrible taste in chicks." She winked and Willow and Tara both laughed.

The movie turned out to be not very good. It was formulaic, predictable, and the acting and writing were downright bad. Actually, Willow decided that it would have had to been quite a bit better to be bad. As it was, terrible was the best rating she could give it. By the end of the movie, she'd assigned it a 4.0 for acting, 3.0 for writing, 3.0 for directing, and 9.0 for atmosphere for an average of 4.75 out of 10. And really, how much credit could you give a movie because every once in a while Tara laughed or smiled at something on screen or because their hands kept brushing together as they reached for popcorn? Faith occupied herself by tossing popcorn toward Cordelia and Harmony, a few rows in front of the former-French Hens.

"You're going to get us kicked o-out," Tara whispered.

"How would that be punishment?" Willow joked.

Tara laughed, finally turning to face Willow and give her a full-smile, happy to see Willow return it. "This m-movie is pretty terrible isn't it?"

Someone behind them shushed them and Willow finally blushed before looking back at the screen.

When the final credits rolled, Faith stood up and stretched. "Well, that sucked. Is Pop coming to get us?"

Willow looked at the watch on her arm as they walked into the lighted lobby. "He'll be here in about ten minutes."

"Hey is that new?" Faith grabbed Willow's arm and lifted the watch for Tara to see.

"W-wow," Tara said as she looked at the complicated watch.

"I got it last night. It has a built in compass with bearing and cardinal points, time to the 100th of a second, glows in the dark, alarm, stopwatch, and countdown timer. Oh and it's waterproof." Willow quickly punched buttons to show off her watch and all its complex functions as she spoke.

"You planning to rob a bank?" Faith teased.

"Maybe she's going to take up mountain climbing," Tara joined in.

"Well you know that the brain bowl competition is fierce," Faith suggested. "Hey there's Ira."

"I wish you wouldn't call him that," Willow said even as she laughed at their good-natured teasing about her gift. When they arrived at the car, Willow quickly climbed in the front seat and the other two girls climbed in back. "Thanks for picking us up, Dad." Before she had even stopped speaking, she turned to look at the girls in the back seat. "We're going to light the candles, ok? Mom said that we could wait until after the movie even though really it should have been like 3 hours ago."

"Exactly how long ago?" Tara asked.


"Come on, Will. You know what time s-sunset was and you know exactly what time it is now," Tara started.

"Down to the 100th of a second," Faith added and noticed Willow's father smiling.

"So how late are the candles g-going to be?"

Willow laughed at her friends's teasing. "Three hours, 11 minutes give or take a few for pop's driving."

"Step on it, Pop," Faith suggested.

Ira laughed before teasing the girls. "You should all feel lucky that we don't have that 'sees you when you're sleeping, knows when you're awake…' rule."

"Especially Faith," Tara joked.

"Hey, I scored 24 points Wednesday night," Faith argues.

"Which would be a real selling point if Santa Claus was a Sunnydale High girls basketball fan."

Faith reached forward to playfully smack Willow on the arm for her teasing.

Ira pulled the car into the garage and shut off the engine as the girls disembarked. "Thanks for the ride, Mr. Rosenberg," Tara was the first to say.

"Yeah, thanks."

Willow led the way into the house. "Hi, Mom. We're home."

Sheila met the group in the hallway and then walked back into the dining room where she had set up the menorahs. "Do each of you want to light one?"

"Of course they do," Willow said as she bounced over to the table. She pulled the center candle from each menorah and handed one to Faith and one to Tara, keeping one for herself. "Since it's the fourth night, we'll light four candles. You do this one first, then work this way." She used her finger to note the correct order for lighting the candles then took the Xeroxed sheets from her father and pointed at the correct blessing.

Tara smiled at Willow as the redhead talked. She just couldn't help it. Willow showed such enthusiasm for everything. Willow didn't consider herself religious, yet she seemed to take a great deal of joy and comfort from the rules and rituals of her faith. The first year that they had lit the menorah, Tara hadn't really understood it. But this year she saw that Willow was trying to share something that was important to her with her friends. Maybe even to share a little of her family with her friends. The blonde grasped Willow's hand and squeezed lightly before dropping it. She was surprised as Willow looked over her shoulder to smile and then wink at her.

When they recited the blessing over the candles, the five voices sounded true and enthusiastic. Willow was surprised to hear Tara so confidently reciting the blessing but maybe the blonde understood what it meant to her to share this ritual. Willow knew that neither of her friends had either the family support nor the money that she had and she just wanted to share a little of her own with them. She knew it could never make up for what they lacked but it was all she could think to do.

As the year before, Sheila gave each of the three girls bags of chocolate and a ten dollar bill and each again thanked her profusely before heading upstairs.

A short discussion resulted in the girls agreeing to watch Tomb Raider. Faith always lobbied for action adventure movies and anything where Angelina Jolie kicked serious ass was a big hit with her. Willow liked the way Angelina looked throughout the movie and she loved watching Tara watch it. The blonde always seemed very intense, biting her lip and leaning slightly forward toward the TV as if willing the heroine to prevail once again.

"Well, I should get rid of some of the popcorn," Faith declared as she lay down on her back and began doing crunches.

"Ever the jock," Willow teased.

"Hey, I've got abs of steel." Faith lifted her T-shirt and patted her stomach while smiling at the other girls.

The ribbing went on for a little while as the three friends teased each other regarding their interest in their own fitness, intellect, singing ability, or whatever else they decided to focus on. They'd been through this exact conversation many times before and would do the same many times in the future.

Once the movies started and Willow skipped the preview chapters, Faith continued her crunches, interspersing stretches into the routine. Tara sat on the edge of Willow's bed as the redhead leaned back between her legs. "Do you want me to braid your h-hair?"

Willow's eyes sparkled as she turned around. "Yes. Definitely." She jumped up and came back with the brush and rubber bands from her bathroom counter and handed them to Tara. "I'll do yours next?"

Tara nodded and then patted the bedspread on the side of the bed to indicate that Willow should lean against the bed once again. As she brushed the redhead's hair, she was amazed at how smooth it was. It sent shivers through her sometimes when she felt this whisper soft brush of hair against her fingertips or the back of her hands.I wonder if it feels this good to her when she brushes my hair? Tara knew she was blushing slightly and felt glad that Willow was watching the movie, not stealing glances like she sometimes did.

It took a long, wonderful time to finish Willow's hair and an even longer one as Willow returned the favor.

Part 3
About a year later

Willow lifted her hand to her cheek, noting the way Tara's hand seemed to fit so easily and perfectly into her own. It didn't even seem weird any more. It was just what was so. Their hands, linked, as they should always be. Perhaps as they had always been. Tara's fingers felt so warm against her cheek and she enjoyed them there before letting their hands drop again to swing between the girls. Tara had a knowing smile on her face and another time, Willow would wonder what it meant.

Now though, all that mattered was Tara's hand in her own. As one they stopped walking and turned toward the ocean to settle gently onto the sand. Both girls could hear the waves on the beach as they came in, lapped at their toes, and then receded.

Tara sniffed quietly and Willow wondered if her lover was smelling the sun about to peek above the water.

My lover?

The thought didn't make any sense yet it seemed so true. She looked sideways at the blonde and noted the smile, the happiness seeming to cover her face. It was a look of absolute happiness and contentment. Of knowing what she wanted and where she belonged. Tara turned her head and looked at Willow and then smiled.

"Yes, your lover," she seemed to say although her lips never moved.

This time Tara opened her lips as she spoke. "The sun is coming up."

Willow glanced at her wrist, noting the time on her watch. "I know but I don't want to leave."

Tara lifted the redhead's hand to her lips and pressed a kiss to her palm.

Willow woke with a start, her breath coming in gasps and gulps. Her hand ached and tingled as she pulled it from under her stomach and started rubbing it to get her blood flowing again. She flexed her fingers as she looked around the room, trying to understand where she was, what the dream meant, anything. She still wasn't used to the feeling of waking from these dreams even though she'd been having them more and more often. Sometimes she remembered bits or pieces of her dreams the feeling of soft hair brushing against her cheek or the smell of vanilla – but more frequently it was just the pulsing of her blood in her veins and another strange feeling. She woke needing to go to the bathroom but never went that much when she got up.

An arm dangled over the edge of the bed and she vaguely recalled Faith saying that there was no reason for everyone to sleep on the floor before crawling up and quickly falling asleep. Two half-emptied net bags of chocolate gelt and one completely empty container (again courtesy of Faith) littered the top of Willow's usually neat desk.

Willow took another cooling breath and shook her head before reaching gently over to touch Tara. She fell slightly off balance as her hand, rather than contacting a Tara-shaped sleeping bag lump, hit a floor-shaped sleeping bag lump. The light coming from under the door to Willow's bathroom gave away Tara's position but Willow would have figured it out anyway as her own breathing finally calmed enough for her to hear the quiet sobs.

Willow eased open the door to the bathroom and pulled it closed behind her to avoid waking up Faith, not that the girl ever woke up for anything less than an impending (and loud) apocalypse. The moment she had closed the door she dropped to her knees and crawled over to Tara. The blonde sat against the tub, a hand towel already soaked with her tears held to her mouth.

"You should have woken me," Willow whispered as she tentatively reached out to stroke Tara's hair. Tara didn't answer nor look at the redhead but she didn't pull away from Willow's touch either. After a few strokes, Willow settled next to her friend and reached an arm around her, pulling the blond closer. "Go ahead and cry. You can cry with me," she whispered as Tara settled into her arms.

Willow couldn't take her eyes off Tara; she looked so alone. Even though she sat, her father on one side, and a woman Willow assumed must be Tara's grandmother on the other side, she looked utterly alone and bereft. Donnie sat on their father's other side, his back ramrod straight, his jaw clenched.

Later Tara told Willow that her father had told them that Maclays did not cry in front of others. That to show emotion or weakness would make them seem less in the eyes of their friends and family. He didn't say to do their best or even that he knew it was a hard time.

It was an edict.

For every tear Tara didn't shed that day, Willow must have shed three or four. She felt like she'd been crying for months. Her mother's arm wrapped around her and she could feel that shaking too. Somehow she hadn't expected her parents to be so upset. How could they be? They were parents. Willow's hand found Faith's and she knew the girl was trying not to cry but she was failing miserably. Ira and Giles stood behind the women, each occasionally reaching out to grasp a shoulder.

Willow felt as if she had to move closer to Tara. She could see her friend's shoulders shaking and no one was doing anything to comfort her. The preacher's voice droned on and on about a life fully lived and taken too soon and the redhead wondered how both could be true. That Elizabeth Maclay had left a loving devoted husband and two strong children. That she had left her mark in the help she gave to all who met her. Faith's hand tightened in hers and Willow realized she had lifted one foot to move closer to Tara. She started and looked down at their hands before looking at Faith.

"Not now, Red," Faith whispered.

Willow looked at their hands again before settling back onto her heels. The preacher finished his sermon and stepped back and a few seconds later the group heard the low hum of machinery as coffin began to be lowered into the hole in the ground. The redhead fixed her gaze on her best friend and wondered how Tara could stand it.

Her mother – being lowered into the ground?

Willow's silent count reached 47 Mississippi before the creaking stopped and Tara's father stood and moved toward the mound of Earth near the hole. Before lifting the shovel he removed the rose from his lapel and kissed it before dropping it into the grave. Willow realized that she felt almost shocked at the gesture, as if it had never occurred to her that the man actually loved his wife, nor that he would be mourning. He lifted the shovel and dug a mound of dirt and dropped it into the hole before handing the shovel to Donnie who repeated the ceremony without the flower. Tara, following her father and brother, forewent the shovel, bending to take two handfuls of dirt and slowly allowing them to fall onto the coffin. Willow heard and noted every drop that contacted the coffin as the blonde stood for seconds at the edge of her mother's grave before brushing her hands into the hole. Tara's grandmother's motions completed the immediate family's and they retook their seats as the rest of the attendees stepped forward to mimic them.

Finally Willow tore her eyes from Tara to question her mother quietly. "Will we do that?"

She needn't have asked as her father stepped around them to take his place in the line forming near the grave and reached his hand back to hers. Willow felt grateful that her father was there to show her what to do. She knew without looking that her mother was behind her followed by Faith and Mr. Giles.

That day, Tara hadn't cried, even as Willow's family passed and paid their respects, even as Willow hugged her and cried and couldn't stop until finally her father gently pulled her away. Willow had gotten into the car still unable to see through the tears falling from her eyes.

Now, Tara's body shook as she cried. Willow continued to hold her friend while tears fell from the blonde's eyes onto Willow's pajamas, soaking more than a few menorah and stars of David. The redhead rocked her friend gently, stroking her hair and whispering. She leaned down and kissed the top of the girl's head, enjoying the way that felt and then doing it again. Oh God, what a creep I am. She's crying over her mother and I'm making out with the top of her head. She started to loosen her hold but Tara's hand gripped her arms and kept them in place, wrapped tightly around her.

Finally, Tara stopped crying and released her grip on Willow's arms. She shifted slightly, drawing back as the redhead inhaled sharply. "A-are you ok?" She looked down and scooted a few inches across the floor.

"I'm fine. Fine. FineyMcFine," Willow lied as she attempted to stretch her back without letting Tara see what she was doing.

"You're sore from holding me," Tara argued as she came closer and gently touched Willow's side.

Willow winced slightly before realizing that the blonde was beginning to rub a circle just where her muscle ached. "That feels good," she admitted.

"Let me wash up my m-mess of a face." Before Tara could stand up, Willow's hand shot out to grasp hers.

The redhead's other hand softly cupped Tara's chin. "Your face could never be anything but beautiful."

Tara blushed and tried to look away but Willow wouldn't let go of her chin. Finally the blonde mouthed, "thanks" before moving away and washing her face. By the time she finished, Willow was standing by the tub, bending over first to one side and then the other. The redhead was turned away and didn't see the look on Tara's face as she watched the way Willow's shirt strained against her body. Willow certainly wasn't developing like either Faith or Tara but she couldn't be mistaken for a boy any longer either. Why am I thinking this? She guiltily looked away as Willow stopped her motions and then retook her seat on the floor.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Willow offered as she patted the star-shaped fuzzy matt covering the floor.

Tara took a seat close enough that she could lay her head in Willow's lap. She had noticed long ago that everything seemed better when the redhead played with her hair and when she could smell the other girl. At first she had found it really weird that she was actually attached to her best friend's scent it's not like I'm a wolf or a coyote but, having no one else to ask about it and not wanting to bring it up to Willow of all people, she had decided to set the weirdness aside and just enjoy her friend.

"I don't know what I'm going to do." Tara's voice was barely above a whisper. She expected Willow to ask about what, or say something but the redhead just continued playing with her hair. After a few seconds Tara spoke again. "I mean she's gone. And I'm only 16 years old. I'm not old e-enough to lose my m- mother."

Willow continued stroking Tara's hair, a small part of her mind wondering if it was wrong to feel so good when she felt so bad. "I know, baby, it's not fair. It's not fair at all."

"She didn't tell me everything I n-n-need to know," Tara said vaguely.

Willow scrunched up her eyebrows as she tried to understand what the blonde was saying. "Like what?"

"Like the secrets," Tara said, feeling embarrassed as she did.

Willow was completely lost by Tara's line of thought. It wasn't often that the redhead felt lost and certainly not often that she couldn't follow Tara. The two girls were like twins most of the time and Willow knew what Tara was thinking every moment and knew that Tara felt the same way. "What secrets?"

"I d-d-don't know."

Willow gripped Tara's hand as she tried to reassure her and understand her at the same time. "Ok, well whatever you're worried about, we'll find out together. I mean there's my mom and my dad and Mr. Giles and the entire Internet."

"I d-d-don't think I could talk to them…" Tara blushed as she thought about the kind of questions she had.

"Couldn't talk to …" Willow looked at Tara and tried to work it out. "Oh! Oh, I get it. You mean…because we're um growing and um changing?" Tara nodded but didn't make eye contact. How could she tell Willow that most of her questions involved the redhead?

"It's ok, baby," Willow attempted to reassure her friend, fully aware that she couldn't even speak to her mother about the issues she was finding so confusing these days, "it's going to be ok. I promise." She didn't know how but she had to make Tara feel better. She shifted around so that she was lying on the floor facing Tara and took the blonde's face in her hands. "I promise it will be ok. And I'll always be here for anything you could need."

Somehow having Willow's hands on her face made the blonde feel better. Her eyes looked so sincere and promising. "Anything?"


"What about the rest of your gelt?" Tara cracked a smile.

Willow sat up quickly and pressed a hand to her chest. "Now I know what I mean to you," she said in mock indignation.

Tara sat up just as quickly. "I don't think you could." As the words left her mouth she immediately regretted them. You're a dork! Why don't you just tell her that you are a complete pervert and that you were ogling her earlier while you're at it?

Willow tilted her head a little to the side as she noted the suddenly serious tone in Tara's voice followed by the girl's cutting her eyes to the side quickly. "I think I do." You're not supposed to feel like this. Seeing her eyes shouldn't make your heart soar. Holding her and stroking her hair shouldn't be the greatest joy in your life. Get a grip, Rosenberg. Aiming for a quick recovery she stood up and extended her hand toward the blonde while lifting the other wrist to check her reliable watch. "It's 3:45. Maybe we should go back to sleep."

Tara nodded and followed the redhead from the bathroom, turning off the light as she went. Even as tired as she was, as worn out from what felt like months of constant crying, her head was so full that it took a long to finally fall asleep.

In spite of her lack of sleep, Tara woke before either Faith or Willow. She quietly rose and went into the bathroom. Within minutes she was padding downstairs. She looked in the hallway mirror to ensure that she looked presentable then knocked gently on the door to the study and waited. After a few seconds she heard footsteps and then the door swung open.

"Tara, please come in." Mr. Rosenberg stepped to the side and waved his hand as if physically inviting the girl.

"Thank you, Mr. Rosenberg," Tara said, mentally congratulating herself for not stuttering. Once he invited her to take a seat she did and even accepted the cup of tea he offered her.

Mr. Rosenberg handed over the cup and took a seat behind his neat desk. "How are you doing?"

"I'm o-ok. I mean…"

"If you need to talk, Sheila or I can talk anytime," he offered. Tara nodded and he reached for a folder on his desk. "I assume you wanted to talk about this." She nodded again.

"Ok, did your mother's lawyer explain it to you?"

"She said that my mother set up a trust for m-my college. Um, and that my f- father doesn't know about it. Um, and that you're the I think she said trustee and that you'll manage it until I need the money?" Tara breathed a sigh of relief that she was able to get that all out so smoothly. The conversation a few days earlier with her mother's lawyer, conducted just out of earshot of her father and brother had shocked her and she wasn't sure that she understood what it all meant.

Ira nodded as Tara spoke. "I don't know how your mother managed to do it without your father's knowledge but she set up this trust for you. You are the sole beneficiary. As you said, I will manage the trust until you either graduate from college or turn 25. At that time, any remaining proceeds become yours."

"So you'll pay my application fees and tuition and books?" Tara felt like dancing a jig but she wanted to stay calm enough to follow what Willow's father said.

"Whatever you need for school, Tara," he confirmed. Seeing the tears welling up in her eyes he reached for his handkerchief and walked around the desk to hand it to her. After looking discretely away so that she could gather her composure for a few seconds, he asked, "Tara, you don't have to tell me but do you know why your mother would want this kept a secret from your father?"

Tara nodded and looked away. "My f-f-father doesn't think that girls should go to college. He only wants Donnie to go."

Mr. Rosenberg nodded. "I see. Well, the way this trust is set up, he can't stop you from going."

Tara smiled broadly. "Is it…um…I mean is there enough…um…I don't know that my m-mother had very much…"

"I'm going to invest it very conservatively because we only have 2 years until you go to school but even so, it should be enough to put you through your undergraduate degree. You may even have a little bit left over."



"Wow." Tara again dabbed at her eyes. Hearing noises in the room above them, she looked at the clock.

"Now, Tara," Ira started, "You're my client which means that I won't tell anyone about this. Not even Willow or Sheila. You can tell them but I won't."

"Ok. Thank you, Mr. Rosenberg," Tara said as she started to stand up.

Willow's father smiled. "I've asked you before to call me Ira." He waited to see the blonde's smile. "My only question is how should I contact you should I need to? I understand you don't want me to call your house."

Tara nodded vigorously. "I asked Mr. Giles on Friday and he s-said you can call him at the library and he'll tell me when he sees me."

Ira smiled. "Very well. It's a good thing Mr. Giles moved to the high school this year then."

"Very," Tara agreed. Again noting the noises above her she quickly said goodbye to Ira and let herself out of the study. She smiled on her way up the stairs knowing that even after she was gone, her mother was providing her with a chance at her dreams.

Part 4
About a year later

"I'm telling you, that was probably the best game in the history of Sunnydale basketball. No, in the history of Sunnydale High School."

Willow and Tara smiled at each other. They'd heard this riff the entire ride over from the game and they knew it wasn't likely to end any time soon. And actually, Jimmy was right. It was quite a spectacular game.

"Why don't we talk about something else," Faith suggested, seeing the expression on Willow and Tara's faces.

Tara smiled at her friend's attempt but she also felt like Faith deserved to have some glory tonight. After all, the girl had pretty much single-handedly beaten Riverdale in the Regional finals tonight. Sunnydale had never won a championship of any kind, the mysterious disappearance of some swimmers a few years ago from a promising team seeming to cement the school's place as an easy mark for better teams. But Faith had not just held her team close; she had scored 47 points with 13 rebounds tonight to whip the defending state championship team by 11 points.

It was Willow's private argument that Faith should have quit basketball the year before, that not only did she now have better things to do with her energy but that it wasn't fair to the other players. But Tara and Faith said that Faith did enough to help people; she should be able to enjoy excelling at something that could actually help her in life. Mr. Giles, thankfully, stayed clear of the discussion as long as Faith didn't neglect her duties.

Willow looked sideways at Tara before offering, "I still don't understand how you made that shot to end the first half."

"Man, isn't that the truth?" Jimmy agreed. He looked down to see that his and Faith's cokes were both empty and offered to go get them each one, sliding from the booth but not before Faith grabbed him and kissed him deeply.

Faith slid back into the booth but continued watching Jimmy walking away. "Mmm." After admiring her boyfriend for a few seconds she returned her attention to both girls. "Thanks for coming out tonight."

"Of course," Willow said. "We're celebrating." Just as she spoke a car drove by, its occupants loudly honking and waving as if emphasizing her point.

"Yeah, but I know neither of you is exactly sports-girl."

"We are when it's our friend kicking butt," Tara offered. As she spoke, she moved her leg slightly closer to Willow's under the table. When their legs made contact, she felt the heat from the redhead's leg through her own skirt and smiled. For a moment she wished that Willow would take her hand under the table but the redhead rarely made such a bold move and Tara never felt like she could. As Willow and Faith visited, Tara snuck glances at Willow's profile. It was, in a word, adorable. Her lips stuck out just slightly as she pouted at something Faith said and her small nose always made Tara think of placing tiny kisses on the end of it. She quickly looked away and took a deep drink of her Sprite, grateful that the glass was mostly full of ice.

"Hail the conquering hero," Jimmy announced, "I hunted and gathered some Cokes."

"I missed you," Faith enthused before reaching under the table to…well do something that Tara wasn't sure she really wanted or needed to know. Whatever it was, Jimmy turned a funny shade of red and put his arm around the brunette.

"Here. I saw that yours was running low." Frank set a Sprite down in front of Tara before pulling up a chair at the end of the booth.

"Um, th-thanks."

"How've you been, Tara?"

"G-good. I mean I guess." Tara glanced over at Willow to see the redhead intently studying the ice in her glass. Her energy seemed uneven, unsettled. "I've been studying a lot. We're taking the SATs next week." She patted Willow on the leg as if trying to include her in the conversation.

"Me too," Frank said, "maybe we can do some prep together? I need a 1200 to get into UCLA. Where do you think you'll go?"

Tara glanced across to see Jimmy and Faith smiling at the interchange and felt her irritation rising. It wasn't like there was anything wrong with Frank or even wrong with Jimmy and Faith wanting her to go out with him. It was just. Just. She didn't feel anything for him. When they'd gone to a movie, she had enjoyed the movie but it was just a movie. She missed the conversation, the running commentary movies usually contained. Ok, the movie doesn't contain any running commentary. That usually came from her companion. She looked again at Willow who was still staring intently into her Coke.

"I, um…c-can you excuse me?" Tara waited for Frank to move so that Willow could let her out and then said she'd be right back.

"Well, great game, Faith," Frank said before rejoining his friends.

"Why don't you be really rude, Red?"

Willow looked up suddenly from her drink. "What?"

"Frank's a nice guy. Every time he comes around, you look like he stole your puppy or something."

Willow looked back at her Coke before setting the glass on the table. "I just don't really think he's a good guy for Tara."

"Why not?"

Willow wondered how to answer Jimmy's question. It seemed so simple. Jimmy wasn't being confrontational or a jerk. Frank was his best friend and he couldn't imagine any girl not wanting to go out with him. What could Willow say? Because I don't think there is a good guy for Tara. Because of me? "I don't know." She looked up to see Tara standing next to her and smiled broadly before sliding against the wall. "You can sit on the outside, um, in case you want to talk to anyone."

Tara tilted her head slightly as she wondered what her friends had discussed while she was gone. As long as I'm close to you, that's all I need. How much longer would this go on? Willow had seemed so troubled by Frank's visit. Was it possible that…Before she could say anything, they were interrupted again. "Faith, great game."

Faith quickly pulled her hand out of Jimmy's lap. "Thanks, Coach."

"Hi, Coach," Jimmy said with a high-pitched squeak.

"This is Teek Strider," Coach said indicating the very fit man standing next to him.

"Faith Lehane," Faith said shaking his hand and standing up.

"You had a great game, Faith. I'd be interested in talking to you about your plans sometime," he said while still pumping her hand up and down.

Faith glanced at her Coach before nodding. "I'd like that too, Sir."

"Why don't you kids enjoy your evening?" Coach said, smiling at both Willow and Tara before both men left.

"Who was that?" Willow asked, noting the excitement on both Faith and Jimmy's faces.

"Teek Strider, USC women's basketball coach."

"I thought the coaches couldn't recruit you yet," Tara said.

Faith snuggled closer to Jimmy as she explained. "They can't but he wasn't. He was just having dinner with his friend and they happened to run into us." While she was explaining, Jimmy waved over the waitress who explained that their bill had already been paid. "Cool, huh?"

The group left the diner and got to Jimmy's car, Willow and Tara sliding into the back seat. They endured what Tara felt was a much longer kiss between the young lovers than she really needed to witness before he started the car and drove them to the Rosenberg home. Willow and Tara quickly said their goodbyes and jumped from the car, looking anywhere but at each other as Faith took a much longer time to say goodbye.

Finally she emerged from the car looking quite invigorated. "Are we lighting the candles tonight?" She took two quick strides to catch up to the other girls and playfully put her arms around their shoulders. "I hope Mamacita and Pops doubled the gelt this year." She patted her stomach as if the two burgers, fries, and four cokes she had just had made no impression at all.

"I think they said something about tripling your chocolate in lieu of giving you any money," Willow teased as she slipped from under Faith's arm and ran toward the door.

Tara laughed as Faith playfully swatted behind Willow. Lowering her voice she changed the subject. "So you don't want to go out with Frank?"

Tara looked up to see Willow standing triumphantly on the front door step, clasping her hands together and raising them over her head, first on one side and then the other, to celebrate her unchallenged victory. The redhead looked absolutely adorable. There couldn't be another word for it. Could never be another word for it. "No," Tara whispered, her voice seeming to leave her.

Willow opened the front door as Faith and Tara reached her. She wondered what she had missed when she heard Faith say, "Well, I don't really get that. I mean Frank's a babe. If I wasn't with Jimbo, who knows?"

Sheila was coming down the stairs as the three girls got in. "Hi, girls. Great game, Faith."

"Thanks, Mrs. Rosenberg."

"Hi, Mrs. Rosenberg," Tara added quietly, waving to Ira as he walked out from his study.

The group repeated their annual tradition with the three menorahs although Tara noted the way that Willow carefully showed her how to light the candles, her hand maybe lingering a little too long on the blonde's. The girls thanked Willow's parents for their chocolate and money and headed upstairs, announcing their intent to watch a movie.

As soon as they entered Willow's room, Faith looked at the clock. "Shit. 10:30. G-man's going to kick my ass."

"Do you w-w-want company?" Tara offered as Willow excused herself to the bathroom.

Faith shook her head. "Naw. You two enjoy a video. I'm wicked pumped up from the game and the caffeine."

"Who's got caffeine?" Willow joked as she re-entered the room, turning her head to watch as Tara walked toward the bathroom.

"I'm too full of it," Faith said. She stood at the French doors thinking and then turned back toward her friend. "Hey," she tapped Willow on the forehead, "are you ok?"

"Yeah. Yeah. I mean fine. FineyMcFine."

Faith spied Tara emerging from the bathroom but continued her conversation with Willow. "You know that you only say you're FineyMcFine when you're totally not FineyMcFine, right?"

"Hey," Willow protested. "You're not supposed to be empathetic. You're supposed to be a tough girl." She stepped around the brunette and swung open the doors. "Go be tough and try to be quiet when you get in."

"Great," Faith said with a smile. "Maybe you'll talk to Tara because something is bothering you." She put one leg over the balcony railing. "Happy Hanukah!" She shouted as she dropped out of sight.

Tara pulled the door shut and stood against it for a minute watching Faith jog away from the house. "Be careful," she whispered. She was startled from her quiet thoughts by Willow's soft touch on her lower back.

"She'll be fine."

"What about you?"

Willow pulled her hand back slightly. "What about me?"

Tara watched the redhead's face in the dark glass. "Are you going to be ok?"

"FineyMc…" Willow took a breath. "I'm ok." She took a few steps across the room and reached into a desk drawer. "I got you a present. I hope that's ok. I mean Hanukah but still."

Tara turned from the window, taking in the hopefulness of Willow's expression. She held a small gift in both hands. It was wrapped in blue paper with stars and little menorahs on it and reminded the blonde of Willow's special pajamas. "Is it pajamas?"

Willow smiled cheekily. "They would be pretty small if it was."

Tara noticed the blush rising in Willow's cheeks. Maybe. Just maybe.

"I…um…h-have something for um you…too? Something I want to give you."

"I'm sure whatever you have will be great and I didn't expect anything so ok," Willow offered. She had noticed the blush on Tara's face. Maybe she was worried that her present wouldn't be nice enough? Well, then it was Willow's job to let her know that she would love whatever Tara had for her.

Tara sat down on the side of Willow's bed and patted the space next to her. "So presents and I get to sit next to you?" Willow took the space right next to the blonde. "What a great deal." She hugged Tara before explaining, "Can you open yours first because I don't think I can wait and I hope you'll like it but if you don't you don't have to keep it and I can get you something else."

Tara placed one slim finger on Willow's lips to stop the babbling. Their faces were mere inches apart and she had to force herself to pull away. "I'll love it." She held out her hands and playfully closed her eyes.

Willow placed the wrapped package in Tara's hands, wondering if the blonde would understand her gift. Opening her eyes, Tara noted the sparkling color of Willow's looking back at her. She hesitated just a moment before tearing the wrapping paper. "Oh, Willow. It's so beautiful!" She looked down at the menorah in her hands and began studying it more intently. The craftsmanship of the piece was incredible. "Where did you find a Willow tree menorah?"

"I had it made," Willow explained proudly, leaning over to point out each of the nine candle holders and the way the fake branches wound out from the center of the menorah. "I though that…this way…you know. You would be…would have…" She trailed off, completely unsure how should possibly explain why she wanted the blonde to have the menorah.

Tara could feel the tears beginning to well up in her eyes. "It's s-so beautiful, Willow. Thank you." She impulsively wrapped her arms around the redhead who first returned the hug stiffly and then seemed to loosen up and return it. Once they had separated Tara looked down at the piece of art, running her fingertips over the branches. Now it was her turn. She knew Willow was waiting for her present. And it didn't seem like as great a plan as she had thought earlier. Or yesterday. Last week. The week before.

"Is mine in your backpack?" Willow's voice cut through Tara's worry. "Hey, are you ok? You're shaking. Did you not like the present because you don't have to keep it if you don't like it or if it makes you uncomfortable or something. And I'll love anything you want to give me and you don't even have to give me anything either." Willow barely paused for breath. "And is it because I was rude when Frank came over to say hi? Because I wasn't trying to be rude and he's a really nice guy and if you want to go out with him, you should definitely do it because I think you should do whatever makes you happy so you'll be happy and if Frank…"

Tara glanced sideways. She loved the sound of Willow's voice. In her life she'd never loved anything else like she loved that sound. But this wasn't the sound of speculation on why Sunnydale's mascot was a razorback but their uniforms were maroon. This was a train wreck babble. A disaster of turning blue and passing out from lack of oxygen babble. Of running over and through her words until they all became word soup. She set down the menorah and lifted one hand to rest her fingertips against Willow's lips. The babbling stopped immediately and Tara could have sworn that she felt the lightest of kisses against her skin.

"I want to give you something but I'm afraid." She couldn't believe she got that out with stuttering.

Willow's eyebrows shot up to near her widow's peak. "Afraid?"

"I just think…I mean if you d-d-don't want…" Tara could feel her fear turning to terror in her chest. Could feel the heat of its growth into her stomach and legs. If she didn't do this now, she knew she…She didn't know what would happen.

"I think I'm just going to…" Again her ability to say something without stuttering shocked the blonde into action. She slowly took her fingertips from Willow's lips where she was surprised to realize they had remained throughout her panic, shifting them slightly to the sides to touch Willow's cheek. Her other hand rose to mirror the first on Willow's other cheek so that she cupped the girl's small face in her hands. Seeing the look of confusion and something else she couldn't identify on Willow's face, Tara smiled, happy to see her smile returned. Slowly, she moved her face slightly closer, wondering if Willow would realize what was happening and pull away. Willow's eyes grew larger, almost cartoon-like, bulging from her face. Now! Tara bit down the fear threatening to overtake her and tilted her head to one side while leaning in and closing her eyes.

When her lips met Willow's Tara used hardly any pressure before she pulled back a few inches and opened her eyes. Her silent question – is this ok? Is this something you want? – was answered less silently.

Willow's lips curled up at the corners for just a moment. "Tell me we can do that again?"

Tara felt like jumping from the bed and running around the room doing backflips and handsprings. Not being very athletic, she settled for leaning in for another kiss, this time meeting Willow in the middle. The redhead returned Tara's gentle kiss as she raised her hand and put it on the back of Tara's head, winding her fingers in the girl's soft tresses. For seconds, minutes, maybe hours, they allowed their lips to move gently together in a flow of kisses that took their breath away.

Willow couldn't believe that Tara had kissed her, was kissing her. She didn't want to ever stop. Finally, after all these years of dreaming, her dream was coming true. She felt completely overwhelmed with the love she felt, pulling away only long enough to wrap her arms around Tara's back and pull her into a tight hug. Tears fell from her eyes as she whispered. "I've dreamed of this for so long. Oh, Tara, how I've dreamed of this." A terrible thought occurred to the redhead. "You're not going out with Frank now right? I mean this isn't just you, um, wondering? Experimenting?"

Tara smiled her half-smile and Willow felt relieved. She was looking at her with such a look of adoration. "No, sweetie. I'm not going out with anyone but you." She suddenly felt her old insecurity surfacing. "I m-m-mean if you w- w…"

"Oh, Tara, I want. I want more than you could possibly know."

Tara smiled again. "I think I know." Then they were kissing and moving together and neither knew any longer who was kissing who and where one kiss stopped and the next started. Someone poked her tongue out and licked the other girl's lips and it seemed like such a spectacular idea that they continued like that for even longer.

Much later, the two girls snuggled together on Willow's bed. Willow lay on her back with Tara against her chest. She was playing with the ends of Tara's hair and kissing the top of her head whenever she felt like they had been too many seconds apart. Tara felt as secure as she had ever felt with Willow's other arm around her. She was toying with the bottom of Willow's shirt as they snuggled. "I can't believe I'm going to h-have to move from this spot to get ready for bed."

"Mmm, not yet. No moving yet." Tara smiled against Willow's chest and felt the vibration of Willow's next words. "Can I ask you a question, Tara?"

Tara sat up at little to see her girlfriend's face. "Anything."

"When did you start feeling like this? I mean when did you want to um…you know?"

"When did I want to kiss you?" Willow blushed and nodded. "Do you remember about a month before my mom died – I took the day off school to spend with her?"

"You missed a history test."

"You would remember that," Tara teased. "I asked her about it. I mean I was pretty vague, like 'what if I kind of like someone but I don't know if it's ok' and 'what if I'm not like you always thought I would be?' stuff like that. But my mom was totally clear. She looked me in the eye and said that she could never be disappointed in me. Ever." Tara wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "Then she asked if we were going to the movies that Friday. She actually said, 'are you and Willow going to the movies this week?' I mean it was a-always the three of us but she asked about you. I think she wanted me to know that she knew it was you. That I liked. And that it was ok with her."

Willow hugged Tara tighter as the girl talked about her mother and how much that conversation had meant to her. "W-what about you?"

Willow smiled as she remembered. "I kind of can't remember not wanting this. I mean one day we were at a movie and it was a romantic comedy. Something with Hugh Grant and I remember it wasn't very good. And I was watching you. Watching you watching it. And he and whoever else was in the movie kissed and I just knew. Knew that I wanted to kiss you, that you were the only person I could imagine kissing, like ever."

Tara could think of no response more appropriate than kissing Willow again and yet again.

Part 5

About a year later

Dearest Tara, I absolutely can't believe this. You're at my house lighting the candles with my parents and I'm stuck in the lousy Phoenix Airport. Don't get me wrong; I'm happy that you feel comfortable with them enough to stay and light the candles and I'm sure they'll give both of you the usual bags of gelt and cash, but…Arggghhh!

The best laid plans of mice and men and all that but you know what? Phooey. I didn't want to be stuck in the Phoenix airport. I want to be there with you. With my family and Faith too but mostly with you. I mean I'm happy to have gotten to talk to you on the phone a few minutes ago but calling you to say that my flight was delayed is very different from being there. Being with you.

I don't think it helps that I've been traveling since 8:15 this morning. It was going to be so easy: Boston to Chicago, Chicago to LA. Then my mom and girlfriend picking me up at the LA airport with my two carry-ons (see, reducing transit time by not checking luggage which would then require a visit to the luggage pickup). I mean you had it all planned out too: cutting out of class after lunch so that you could come pick me up. Did you go to class after all? If so, lucky classmates and teachers. Grrr. Instead, weather and now mechanical delays. I've been Boston to New York, New York to Memphis, Memphis to Phoenix, and now Phoenix to LA is overbooked and I don't know when I'll get on the next flight.

In a way I was with you though. Right at 5.43, when I knew you were lighting the candles with Mom and Dad, I was on the last flight. I couldn't light a menorah obviously so I got out a piece of paper and drew a menorah on it. Then I used my red and orange pens to draw a light on the candles as I said the blessings. I know it's dorky but I felt closer to you. I closed my eyes and pictured you there, lighting your Willow-tree menorah. Say that you'll always light it. Always?

I know we talk on the phone four or more times a week but I want to be there. To be home with you. I know we talked about this for months. About my graduating early and starting college a year early and it seemed doable. But right here, today, it seems like a terrible idea. I remember your logic – that if we couldn't handle a year apart how would we fare for the next 4 while we are both at school? But not this year.

I don't always feel like this. Some days I'm exhilarated and challenged by the workload. It's the first time in my life that I don't feel like the biggest dork in the universe in every class. I have classes where I don't even think I'm the 10th smartest person. Ok, not many classes like that but it happens. I'm in a study group for my Physics class with three guys who all have as many AP credits as I do. One of them went to RPI for advanced work over the summer before coming to MIT. I mean, geez, get a life guy? Seriously though it's really exciting. There are even days when I've worked on a project and not slept all night! Can you imagine? Me not sleeping all night for something that's required? And by the time I come home in the Spring, I'll be a Junior. You're not only dating a college student (and a darned cute one at that /smile) but soon a college Junior. You vixen, you.

Someone from the airline just came over and told me that they are getting me on a flight to Seattle and then LA. This is like a world tour. I'll be landing in LA about 12:30 so I hope you're home in bed by that time. Not that I don't want to see you because I do, but you need your sleep if you have class tomorrow. I mean, Giles can only say that you're helping him in the library so much. /smirk

Re: your last letter. I get that you couldn't talk about it the last time we spoke and you know I couldn't. I can't believe what you told me about Faith and the WC. What a bunch of wankers (see, I had to curse them in English since they're English). I mean "hey, Faith. Happy Birthday!" How is her arm? Is it healing super fast? I'm just glad that nothing else happened. And Giles went along with it? I think when I get there, I'm going to give him a piece of my mind, maybe kick him in the shins too. So you're still playing translator for the two of them? "Mr. Giles, Faith says she hit 3 cemeteries and she's going home." "Please tell Faith that will be fine." I can just imagine. Do you say "dear lord" and all that Gileish stuff too? I hope I get to translate for them while I'm home because I'll say stuff like, "Faith, I know that I acted a right ass but if you would just forgive my wankish behavior, I know we can get along capitally." Do you think that capitally is a real word?

Speaking of Faith, it sounds like her party was really great (until the badness that is). So she's totally the toast of Sunnydale huh? She deserves it. I mean Sunnydale High: State Basketball champs! It has a pretty nice ring to it doesn't it. Do you think she's going to take the offer from USC? Don't tell her I said this but she's got to go to school and get the hell away from her mother. That woman is demented in a truly unattractive way. Faith deserves so much more.

Still speaking of Faith, I'm totally ok if you want to tell her about us. Actually, I'm not sure why we never did before. I mean it wasn't like we were keeping secrets or anything. I guess for me it was just that you and me, we are just you and me, kinda private you know? I mean I've loved having something that was just mine. Just between you and me? I don't know if that makes any sense.

My point is that I totally understand your being lonely. I get lonely too. I mean I'm busy and the schoolwork is fantastic and I have study groups and a roommate. But I miss you. I miss you so much. There are times when I just lay on my bed, hugging a pillow to my chest and imagining that it's you. I close my eyes and breathe deep and try to think about what you smell like. But it's such a hard thing to imagine. I mean I can picture you in my head and I can hear your voice but your smell? Oh god, this sounds totally weird doesn't it?

Sometimes I get so lonely that I…um…well you know? I mean do you? You know, ever? I mean. Well you know when we um…made love before I left town. I mean ok, I hope you know because if you've forgotten then I have to work on some things because I want to make you feel as wonderful as you made me feel. Um…like I wish I was doing that now. You know? Do you think about it? Maybe I'm just a total pervert or something but I hope not. I mean I think about it a lot. But sometimes I just you know, miss you so much. And I start thinking about before I left for school and when I get home (should be right now, grrr) and about the sound of your voice and how beautiful and soft your lips are. And I'll start, you know, and thinking about how you feel or like you were doing it? And it just feels so wonderful and I forget how much I miss you for a few minutes because it's like you're actually there with me.

They're announcing that we have to put our tray tables up and it was like quite a shock. I mean a minute ago, I'm thinking about you and your extreme sexiness and now it's all, "stow your carryon luggage." So I'm stowing and I'll see you in a few hours.

I just re-read this entire letter and you know what I noticed first? Not the totally embarrassing confession about what I do when I missing you, no not that. I noticed that I didn't say I love you. I should say that first. I should say that in the middle. And I should say it at the end.

I love you, Tara.

Yours forever, Willow

Part 6

About a year later

Tara leaned forward, nearly touching the metal grill separating the front and back seats. "What time is it? Please."


"Thanks. Are we very far away?" She leaned against the seat back and tried to will herself to calm down. It was such an impulsive move, surprising Willow like this and if she wasn't in time, it wouldn't mean nearly as much. She didn't want to hassle the driver but on the other hand, she had only 23 minutes to reach Willow's room.

"Five minutes, maybe." The driver looked in the rear-view mirror and smiled. "You have a boyfriend going to school? Eager to see him?"

"Something l-like that," Tara said as she glanced down at her skirt and picked a piece of lint from it.

"Are you in school? It's the only way to get ahead in this world you know. My kids," the driver pointed at two bent and faded pictures on the dashboard. "I'm saving for their educations already. Maybe they don't go here but a college education for them." Tara assured the driver that she was also attending school and that he was doing the right thing in providing for his childrens's education. After a few minutes of conversation, he pulled to a stop in front of the dorm. "Here we are." He looked at the meter. "$12.50." Tara passed a five and a ten through the pass-through and grabbed her overnight bag, thanking him and exiting the cab. She knew the timing was going to be close but hopefully she would be in time.

Her second hurdle was solved as a group of students exiting the secured building held the door open for her. She was able to slip in without having to call Willow or pound on the door and hope someone let her in. She guessed that the students must have finished their exams as they seemed in a very excited mood and were all dressed up. She wondered if Willow knew them, if the redhead ever dressed up like that and went out for the evening. As soon as the thought occurred to her, she shook her head to rid it. She knew that for as long as their circumstances kept them apart, she and her lover couldn't afford to indulge in jealousy.

Seeing the door to the stairs, she took that, hoping again to avoid scrutiny by curious residents in the hallways or elevator. She cracked the door at the top of the third flight and quickly stepped into the corridor, checking her watch. 5:49, perfect. Room 307 wasn't hard to find and she heard quiet rustling from inside the room. She waited another minute before knocking.

Willow pulled the door open looking flustered and glancing back into her room before realizing who was standing in the hallway. "I forgot my menorah. Do you think I could light the candles with you?" Tara asked as Willow gaped. She tried not to smirk too much as Willow's mouth opened and closed.

"Wha…Tara? You're? I mean…"

"Happy Hannukah, Willow." Tara winked at her lover.

"Happy Hannukah? You're…" Willow was obviously still shocked at Tara's appearance at her dorm room.

Finally seeming to regain some measure of composure, she stepped quickly into the hallway and wrapped her arms around her girlfriend. After a long few seconds she pulled back from the hug but didn't release Tara's arms. "What are you doing here?" Before Tara could answer she grasped the blonde's cheeks and leaned in for a hungry kiss.

"More of that, I hope," Tara teased. She lifted her hand to show Willow her overnight bag. "Do you think I can c-come in?"

"What? Of course." Willow finally seemed to snap out of her surprised daze and stepped aside to usher her lover into her dorm room. "My roommate went out for pizza. She'll be back in a little while."

Tara smiled and pushed the door shut, glancing around the dorm room and noting the clear distinction between Willow's orderly desk and her roommate's more "freestyle" area. "Actually she's in on this conspiracy. She's spending the night at a friend's." She leaned closer. "We have the room to ourselves tonight." She kissed the redhead just behind her ear in a spot she knew the girl couldn't resist. "…unless you have to study."

Willow swallowed audibly. "I have to study for a few hours but my exam isn't until 1:00 tomorrow afternoon." She placed her hands on Tara's hips, stroking them lightly in a way she knew the blonde loved and leaned in so her lips were practically touching Tara's ear. "I think I have enough time to enjoy the room." As soon as the words were out of her mouth she felt Tara pull her close and then her world narrowed, as it so often did, to Tara. Nothing but Tara. Her lips, her body, her scent. Everything Tara and nothing but Tara.

Her world.

Tara finally broke the steamy kiss as she pulled Willow toward the menorah she knew would be set up and waiting. "We should light the candles, Love."

Willow smiled and picked up the lighter, having long since given up coaching Tara on the prayers or the correct order for lighting the candles. Even as shocked as she was by Tara's appearance, she knew instinctively the correct way to conduct the ceremony. The feeling of Tara's hand wrapped around hers as they shared the responsibility for kindling the single menorah seemed as natural as breathing for the two girls. "Your present is at home," Willow explained sheepishly. She narrowed her eyebrow as she studied Tara. "Speaking of which, I'm not supposed to see you until 7:15 tomorrow night in Chicago where we're both changing planes and catching the same flight to LA."

Tara leaned over and placed a kiss on Willow's cheek to sooth her lover's mock disappointment. "Take me to dinner and I'll explain my devious deception." Just on cue her stomach rumbled loudly and she laughed. "I haven't e-eaten since breakfast."

"Then you should have sustenance," Willow declared as she grabbed her jacket and set Tara's bag on her bed. "Chinese sustenance ok?"

Reaching the restaurant close to campus, the girls followed the hostess to a table near the window. "It's c-cold here, Willow, how do you stand it." Tara shivered even though she kept her scarf wrapped around her neck upon taking a seat.

"Mostly through thoughts of you," Willow flirted.

"You're absolutely charming, you know?"

"I certainly try." Willow put her hand across the table to take her girlfriend's in her own. They immediately ordered hot teas and then looked at their menus. After agreeing to split two dishes and get some dumplings before their meal arrived, Willow noticed some friends staring at her from across the restaurant.

"What's wrong, sweetie?" Tara asked, realizing that Willow was distracted and apparently disturbed about something.

"Well, that's Julie and Ty from the dorm. Actually they're kind of good friends of mine, and they're just shooting us totally terrible looks." She looked upset and took another drink of her tea. "I don't know what they're so pissed off about."

Tara glanced up at the other two girls, noting that they were indeed shooting icy looks her direction. After a few seconds she started chuckling. "So, honey… they're c-close friends?"

"Yeah." Willow wrinkled up her eyebrows. "I don't know why they look so angry."

Tara smiled at her girlfriend. "So they know about m-me?"

"Of course, baby," Willow said, leaning over to place a kiss on Tara's hand. "I mean why wouldn't I tell them about my girlfriend – the most wonderful, sexy, smart woman in the world?"

"And they know that you'll see me tomorrow in Chicago?"

"Yeah…" Willow trailed off and looked at Tara, wondering why the blonde had such a smug look on her face. Finally she got it. "Oh crap!" She quickly waved at the other two girls and motioned them to come over.

A few seconds later two very angry looking girls stood by the side of the table. "Julie, Ty," Willow said, "this is Tara. Tara, this is Julie and Ty."

Both girls still looked angry as they looked back and forth between the seated couple. "Tara?"

"You're Tara?"

"N-nice to meet you," Tara said warmly as she stuck out her hand.

"The Tara?"

"Yes, The Tara," Willow said. "She came here early to surprise me." The redhead thought about it for a moment. "Actually, I don't even know the whole story yet but Diana was in on it."

"So you're the woman who has Willow so incredibly head-over-heels in love that she doesn't even go to parties?" Ty teased Tara as Julie asked, "Should we join you or head back?"

Tara looked over at Willow before nodding quickly and Willow motioned toward the chairs. "Willow says you've been a couple since you were both zygotes," Julie said after the waitress had come over and confirmed that the girls were moving to the new table.

"I think it was a little l-later than that," Tara said shyly.

"So what, it was all like junior high sleepovers and hairdos?" Ty continued teasing.

"Pretty much," Willow agreed as she took a drink of her coke.

"That's so sweet."

"So, Tara," Julie asked, "Willow said she'd see you tomorrow night in Chicago. How'd you get here early?"

"I thought you'd never ask. I was supposed to have a final tomorrow but the professor announced last week that anyone who wanted could take the exam with the other section on Monday. So I c-called the airline and Diana, and my devious surprise was born."

"Mmm, and I'm so glad." Willow leaned over and kissed her lover, perhaps lingering a little too long judging by the throat-clearing Ty and Julie did.

"So you'll be home together for a month before classes start in the Spring?"

"Whatever will we do with the time?" Tara smiled.

"Oh, wait. I think I know," Ty teased just as the food came. After taking a look at the selection, the girls decided to share all four dishes. For a while they mostly ate with very little conversation. After eating and settling the bill, they walked back to the dorm again. Julie, Ty, and Tara all repeated how nice it was to meet each other and everyone wished each other good holidays and vacations.

As soon as the door to Willow's dorm room was closed, Tara wrapped her arms around her lover, pulling her close. Their lips met slowly at first then more boldly. Their kiss quickly displayed the passion that seemingly had built over the months since homecoming. Realizing that she soon would be unable to stop herself from ravaging her lover but feeling that she should be somewhat responsible, Tara forced herself to break the kiss. "More kissing," Willow virtually growled. When Tara again broke the kiss, Willow moved her hungry lips to Tara's neck, beginning to place feather-light kisses along her pulse point. "More everything."


"More Tara." Willow's hands began to join in her mission, pulling Tara's blouse from the waistband of her skirt, and snaking underneath to find the soft skin of her lower back.

"Do…um…" Tara tried to keep her wits about her even as her girlfriend's hands lifted the back of her shirt and stroked her skin. "Do you n-n-need to study?"

"Study, schmudy," Willow muttered as her hands came around to the front of Tara's blouse to unbutton it.

"Willow," Tara made a desperate plea to be responsible. "We can make love all month but you're going to be upset i-i-if you fail your final tomorrow." Realizing that the redhead wasn't listening to a word she was saying, Tara finally pulled slightly away and wrapped her hands around Willow's wrists.

"Mmm, well we've never tried anything like that but if you want…" Willow smirked as she attempted to reach Tara's neck with her lips.

"Willow Rosenberg," Tara said in her sternest tone. "Do you need to study?"

"I know what I want to study." Willow moved her hands, her fingertips extending toward Tara's chest.

"Do you need to study?"

Willow took a deep breath and answered Tara clearly. "No. My test isn't until 1:00 so as long as I have a few hours tomorrow, I'll be fine."

Before the redhead could resume their kiss, Tara pressed her toward the bed. "Then sit down, Willow." Her tone was so sexy that Willow could do nothing but comply. Tara felt a pang of embarrassment at her intention but took a subtle breath or as subtle as a deep breath under the watchful eye of an extremely turned-on girlfriend could be. Her hands slowly went to her own blouse buttons and slipped each from its hole, working her way from the bottom to the top. Once she had undone each button, she slipped the top from her shoulders, pleased but not surprised to see Willow's mouth drop open. Next, she unzipped her skirt and smoothly stepped out of it. "Happy Hanukkah, lover," she purred, running her hands over her breasts and then stomach.

Willow couldn't believe her eyes. "Where did you get them?"

Tara laughed as she stepped toward the bed and began pulling Willow's shirt over her head. "A girl down the hall is a fashion design major. I g-got the material and she made the lingerie." She leant close to Willow's ear as she unfastened the redhead's bra. "They glow in the dark too."

Willow's hands began to trace the lines of Tara's bra before gently touching the menorahs and stars of David on each. "They look almost like my pajamas. Remember them?"

Tara pushed Willow back onto the bed before stretching her body on top of her lover's. "I remember it all, baby." The blonde began kissing Willow's jugular, unsurprised to hear her breath catch. At the same time, she moved her hand to the waistband of Willow's jeans and undid the button. She could feel her own passion racing. Willow's hand moved to the back of the blonde's head and pulled their lips together. Her other pressed against the bed, lifting her so that Tara could pull off her jeans and panties. Now naked, she moved her hand to Tara's waist, caressing her hip and pulling her closer. Her legs fell open and she gasped as the blonde's leg pressed against her center.

Willow grasped Tara's lovely bottom, running her fingertips along the edges of the Hannukah panties and pulling her into her body even more as she thrust her tongue into the blonde's mouth. She toyed with the panties, gently questing toward her lover's center as if trying to decide whether to dispose of the barrier or continue admiring it. Before she could decide, she felt Tara lift slightly from her center.

"Come back," she panted.

Tara giggled at Willow's adorable pout and placed a quick kiss on her nose. "Patience," she purred as she began placing gentle kisses on the redhead's neck before moving to her chest. Much as she would have loved to spend the entire night making love to the redhead's pert nipples, the combination of the way Willow was moving under her, the months since the two had been together, and the scent wafting toward her, made going slowly utterly impossible.

She slid down the bed until her face neared her lover's center. "Stupid small dorm beds," she muttered, eliciting a giggle from Willow, as she attempted to fold her legs up against the wall of the room. Finding a position that didn't involve inventing an advanced Yoga pose, she lowered her mouth to place a gentle kiss on Willow's stomach just above her hairline.

"Please don't tease me, Tara."

Tara needed no further encouragement; she used one hand to separate Willow's folds and ran her tongue the full length of her lips, marveling at the girl's wonderful taste. At the first contact the redhead bucked up, only Tara's weight holding her to the bed. "I don't want to tease," Tara purred as she repeated the action on each side of her lover's luscious and soaking wet lips. Willow made some incoherent sounds which the blonde took as an invitation to bring her even more pleasure. She knew just how much both women needed this connection and immediately licked against Willow's clit. As Willow screamed and grabbed a pillow to place over her mouth, Tara continued licking, finally sucking her lover's clit into her mouth and feeling the redhead's grateful release.

When Willow had finished shaking and screaming into the pillow she smiled playfully at her lover. "Come here, Love."

Tara slowly shifted her weight to allow Willow to wrap her arms weakly around her back. "Do you want to sleep?"

The redhead's answer was instantly apparent as she used a sudden burst of energy to flip Tara onto her back and hover above her. Her fingertips danced teasingly at the wet edges of the girl's panties. "Oh no. What I'm thinking of definitely doesn't involve sleeping." She bent down and whispered in Tara's ear. "Not for a few hours anyway."

Tara gasped as Willow began kissing her breasts while slipping her fingertips under her panties. She sucked one silk-clad nipple into her mouth before letting it go. "Much as I enjoy the festivity, I think it's time for a different kind of festivity." She unhooked Tara's bra and dropped it over the side of the bed before returning to the same nipple and sucking it hard. When she moved her mouth to the other nipple, she slipped her fingers around the waistband of her panties and slid them over her hips. With Tara helping by lifting her bottom from the bed slightly, these quickly joined the bra on the dorm room floor.

She considered mirroring Tara's actions but knew how much the blonde loved attention paid to her nipples. Not to mention that there'd be plenty of time for other activities later.

She moved her mouth to the other nipple, this time running the tip of her tongue teasingly over each and every bump as she ran her fingers along Tara's soaking center. "Oh, baby. You're so wet…"

Tara tried to say "for you" but it came out "ahhh" as Willow slid two fingers into her accommodating and warm channel. Her hand caressed the back of her lover's head as the girl paid very special attention to her breasts. She knew that Willow had somewhat of an obsession with her breasts and that worked out pretty well given that she loved what the redhead wanted to do to, with, and for them. She lifted her hips slightly, moving with Willow's gentle thrusts and knowing that she was close. So close. So wonderfully close. Grasping Willow's wrist with her hand, she wondered briefly if she was squeezing too hard as she climaxed powerfully and held her deep inside for long moments.

Willow knew that both of them were going to fall asleep any second. She summoned up enough energy to reach over the bed and pull a blanket from the floor. After tucking it around them, she kissed Tara's forehead gently. "Will you wear the panties and bra again?"

Tara giggled into Willow's chest. "Hannukah has seven more days doesn't it? If I time the laundry right, they should make a few more appearances."

Part 7

About a year later

Tara and Willow milled around looking for someone they would recognize. "Look, there's Giles," Willow said as she finally spotted the tall man over the heads of some of the other friends and family. She took her girlfriend's hand and pulled her through the crowd until they reached him and tapped him on the shoulder.

Giles turned around and spotted the two girls. "Willow and Tara," he said happily as he bent to hug both women, "I didn't know you were coming. Faith didn't say."

Tara stepped back from her hug and smiled at her former mentor. "She didn't know. We wanted to surprise her."

"Well, she will certainly be surprised and very pleased." He leaned forward. "I don't think her mother will be here tonight so she will be doubly happy." Giles paused as a man near the hall entrance announced that everyone should begin taking their seats and then motioned with his digital camera for the girls to walk ahead of him. "Are you home for break?"

Willow shook her head regretfully. "I have to be back at school on Monday and final exams start Thursday."

Tara nodded in agreement. "I don't have to be back at class until Tuesday but I have a few papers to write." She looked at Giles intently. "If we didn't know how important this was we wouldn't have been able to make it."

Giles stood at the end of a row of chairs and again held out his hand to allow the two women to file in first. He sat next to them and checked the battery level on the camera. The crowd milled around and visited with each other. "How are your parents, Willow?"

"They're good," she answered. "They're in Brazil or maybe it's Belize but they sent a card and gift."

"There's Jimmy," Tara said and stood to ease her way to the center aisle as he spotted her. "Tara!" Jimmy said as he wrapped his arms around the blonde. "I didn't know you were coming. Faith didn't say. Is Willow here?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth he spotted the redhead and waved enthusiastically at her. "We're going to go out tonight to celebrate. You two are coming with right?"

Tara smiled at her friend. "Um, I think so. I mean we're here to see Faith." She looked back at Willow. "W-will F-frank be …? I mean we'll come anyway but I just wondered."

Jimmy smiled warmly at the blonde to let her know that he understood her asking. "He's at school and couldn't get away this weekend. He sent her some flowers."

"That was nice."

The two looked up as a man stepped up to the microphone and then whispered promises to see each other shortly before retaking their seats.

"How was he?" Willow whispered.

Tara couldn't resist the chance to tease her lover. "Adorable as usual. You know he's a dream."

Willow giggled at Tara's impression of their mutual best friend. "I've noticed."

"We're going to go out after ok?"

"Well, I certainly didn't fly 3000 miles to see this thing and then go home and watch cable," Willow whispered out of the side of her mouth.

"Well, your parents do have that garden tub," Tara whispered as Giles coughed and then removed his glasses and began polishing them. Apparently unsatisfied with washing his glasses, the librarian polished the lens on his digital camera as well.

"Is, um, Frank coming?" Willow asked, attempting to keep her voice casual. "I mean it's ok if he is. He's Faith's friend."

Before Tara could answer, their attention was taken by the group on the stage, including the Mayor, the Chief of Police, and the Fire Chief as well as a few instructors from the academy. Willow recognized only the Mayor and that was from his speech at her high school graduation as well as the following tea at which he presented her award as Sunnydale Scholar of the Year. The others she could only identify because they were listed on the program resting in her lap.

Neither woman knew what to expect from the ceremony but they felt pretty sure it would include an array of boring speeches and it didn't disappoint. The Mayor began with a discussion of how these young people had assumed a commitment to public service. Next the individual instructors stood and explained who had truly excelled in that instructor's area. Willow wasn't surprised to see Faith awarded the prize for most outstanding at the physical tests. Next the Chief of Police spoke.

As they spoke, Willow concentrated on watching Faith. She looked stunning surrounded by her nine fellow officers in their gleaming uniforms. The seams starched to within an inch of their lives, single medal shined to a blinding silver, and their shoes buffed a high gloss. Willow shook her head as she thought about this transition. Faith looked like a child among adults but Willow knew that it was only because in her mind the girl was still 13 years old, talking about the cutest boys. She'd done enough crap work for her mother to truly deserve to reach this goal.

The Chief of Police reiterated everything those before him had said but also emphasized how stringent and challenging the training these officers had completed had been. He emphasized it by pointing out that they had begun with 23 officer candidates and were only graduating ten.

Tara could well imagine what was going through Willow's mind as she watched their best friend sit among the other officers. She felt as proud as she had the day Faith had nearly single-handedly won the State Basketball championship, probably more so. "She looks fantastic doesn't she?" She whispered to her lover.

"She looks like a little kid," Willow whispered back, a little of the trepidation she felt about Faith's taking on such a dangerous job sneaking into her tone.

"She's dealt with worse before." Tara pulled Willow's hand into her lap and held it with both of her own. In a way it seemed that Willow's "lost year", as they jokingly referred to it, had frozen her impressions of Faith a year earlier than Tara's. Tara and Faith had lived through their senior years together, seen Faith's relationship with Jimmy blossom, with Giles threatened and then strengthened, and with her mother virtually fall apart. They had survived Tara's father's incensed reaction to discovering Tara's intent to attend college and countless serious threats. Tara had no doubt that if anyone could handle being a police officer, Faith could.

Before Willow could answer, the Chief of Police announced that he would now be presenting the graduating officers. Following a strict and rehearsed pattern, each officer stood, marched to him, shook his hand, and had his or her badge pinned to his shirt. The officer's name was announced and even though the program asked for no clapping or cheering until the process was complete, each name evoked a rousing round of applause and some whistles. The graduated officer then stepped over to shake hands with each of the dignitaries on the stage before retaking his or her seat.

"Well, that was somewhat anticlimactic," Giles deadpanned as the ceremony ended abruptly with an invitation to stay and have tea and cake and enjoy the opportunity to take pictures with the Mayor and Chief of Police.

"Your gift for understatement seems to be intact," Willow returned as they edged down the row and into the aisle. Although all three looked toward the stage for a glimpse of Faith, they were swept toward the doors. They followed the crowd milling toward the adjacent community room and entered the space to see the new officers scattered around, visiting with their proud family and loved ones.

"There they are," Giles said, as he spotted Faith and Jimmy near the center of the room. He led the way and they quickly met the couple.

"Congratulations, Officer Lehane," Tara said with a smile.

Faith reached out to wrap her friend in a hug and lift her off the ground. "You should have told me you were coming." She set down Tara and reached for Willow, repeating the tight hug.

"We didn't want you to send a police escort to the airport or anything," Willow said as Faith set her down.

"Like I have any authority."

"Congratulations, Faith." Giles gave the girl a friendly hug and she smiled back.

"Thanks, G-man." She returned her attention to her boyfriend who had disappeared and then reappeared with five carefully balanced plates of cake and now held them very precariously out toward the rest of the group. "No drinks, sweetie?" Everyone laughed at Faith's teasing.

"Well, you've done it. How does it feel?" Tara asked her friend before taking a bite of cake.

Faith smiled widely. "Man, I'm a cop. I mean how cool is that? To Protect and Serve." She tapped her badge with the clean end of her fork.

One of her fellow graduates came by with her family and the entire group exchanged greetings and introductions. The next thirty minutes were spent in a flurry of warm greetings and group photographs. Tara and Willow allowed themselves to fade into the background and just watch their friend bask in her moment. Finally the celebration began to break up and people left in twos and threes. "Are you girls coming out with us or going home to use that garden tub?" Faith said with a smile and a shrug toward Giles. The youngsters all laughed as he pulled off his glasses angrily and made an exaggerated motion to clean the lenses.

"Definitely out with you," Willow and Tara both enthused.

"And the tub will still be there when we get home," Tara added with a smirk toward Giles.

"Yes, well, I think I'll head over to the library and see if there's any work to do there," Giles said as he looked at his watch.

"I'll go get the car," Jimmy offered before shaking hands with Giles.

"Speaking of work?" Faith left her question unasked.

Giles smiled at the new officer. "Consider the night off your present."

"Who is covering?"

"Believe it or not, Spike," Giles said.

"Who is Spike?" Willow asked, a puzzled look on her face.

"I'll explain later, sweetie," Tara whispered to the redhead. To Giles she said, "How much is that costing?"

"Enough to count as Faith's present." Giles smiled and hugged all three girls again before leaving.

"Jim-boy will be ready." Faith started leading the other girls through the dwindling crowd, waving to others as they went. "Did you drive here?"

"We got a cab from the airport to the house and then drove mom's car here," Willow explained. "Where are we going?"

The group reached Jimmy and all discussed their destination. "We'll get a table," Jimmy said before watching Tara and Willow make it to their car. Willow let Tara in the passenger side and closed the door before walking around to the driver's side. Sunnydale wasn't a very big town and within ten minutes the two couples sat at a table in the Sunnydale Diner.

"I'm starving," Faith announced as she opened the menu.

"When aren't you starving?"

Faith stuck her tongue out at Tara even though everyone at the table knew it was true. They all ordered dinner and then began catching up on each other's news. Tara and Willow had both had very busy semesters and neither was finished yet. They had only managed one visit during the previous three months. "It must be hard being so far away from each other," Faith said around a bite of her double-cheeseburger.

Willow squeezed Tara's hand. "I hate it. Really. I mean it's necessary but it's so hard."

"It's not even the big things," Tara added, "it's little things like forgetting to mention that you got your hair cut or that you got a new roommate."

"So when you finish school, Willow," Jimmy asked, "are you going to go down and join Tara while she's finishing up?"

"No," Tara said at the same time as Willow said, "Yes."

"A unanimous decision." Faith threw up her hands.

"Willow's already accepted for at M.I.T. or her choice of graduate schools. She's not going to give that up to come to North Carolina."

"UNC doesn't suck," Willow argued.

Jimmy's phone rang and he answered it. "I'm going to go meet the guys so you can visit with Will and Tara, ok, babe?" He leaned over and gave his girlfriend a kiss and both Willow and Tara turned their heads.

"Well you two have certainly toned down the PDAs," Tara teased.

Faith reached over to snag a fry off Willow's table. "No one is 17 forever." Willow and Tara laughed and they were interrupted by some of the diner's regulars stopping by to congratulate the new officer. Faith was very well known and well liked in Sunnydale due to her prominence as a basketball star and the fact that she was out in town every night. She had told Tara once that she literally couldn't remember the last time she'd paid for a meal in the diner or any where else in town.

The diner wasn't busy and Scout, the owner, was always happy to let Faith and her friends hang out for as long as they wanted. Tara and Willow both ordered coffee and Faith ordered another chocolate shake. "So who is Spike?" Willow asked.

Tara smiled. "You want to explain?"

"Naw, you go ahead T." Faith took another fry off Tara's plate and the blonde pushed the entire plate at her friend of the boundless appetite.

"Senior year, we had some 'help' in town." Tara held up her hands to put air quotes around the word help. "A government unit wanted to tame some of our more unusual critters."

"You've got to be kidding me." Willow rolled her eyes at such a stupid plan. "Why did they think that was a good idea? I mean did they never hear 'the best laid plans of mice and men so often go astray'?"

"They were idiots," Faith agreed.

"Anyway, Spike's been around, what a hundred, hundred and twenty years?" Faith nodded her head and Tara continued explaining. "According to Giles he was quite v-vicious in his day."

"And he's working for Giles tonight?" Willow said. "Maybe Giles needs to hear about the best laid plans."

Faith and Tara both laughed at Willow's estimation. "He's harmless now. The government put a chip in his head so he can't hurt humans."

"Harmless my ass," Spike said as he loomed over their table.

"Speak of the devil," Faith said.

"You must be Tara's lady?" He leered at Willow for a minute. "I can see why."

"I'm considering asking Faith to beat you up," Tara told the vampire. Willow could see that her lover and Spike had some sort of relationship although it didn't appear to be exactly friendly.

"Right, right, right. Don't get your panties in a wad, blonde."

"Now I'm considering it," Willow added.

Spike turned his attention from the couple and told Faith. "I did the East side already. I'm going to do the last three and then circle back around. Do you think that's worth the $175?"

"It's fine. Now get out of here so I can enjoy visiting with my friends."

Spike left without saying anything. A minute later he was back. "Oh, Clem and some of the other boys said to tell you congratulations." He pulled a small box out of his pocket and handed it to the brunette.

All three girls watched him leave with astonished looks on their faces. "Clem?" Willow looked at her girlfriend with a look that clearly said she wanted to know just how much she didn't know about Sunnydale these days.

"Clem is a g-good guy," Tara assured her girlfriend with a pat on her hand. "What did they get you?"

"I'm still on the part where they got me something," Faith said holding up the box.

Tara playfully reached across and grabbed it from Faith's hand. "Do you want me to open it?"

Faith grabbed it back, laughing as she did so. "It's my night. I'll open it." Willow watched the interactions between her two best friends with a smile but also with mixed feelings. On one hand, she loved the playfulness and love they had for each other but on the other, they had an entire history together that she wasn't a part of. She wondered how many other areas of Tara's life she wasn't part of. And how many of hers was Tara not a part of? How much were they missing out on?

"I'll be right back," she said, sliding from the booth. Reconsidering her exit she quickly leaned down and kissed her girlfriend.

Faith and Tara both watched the redhead go with puzzled looks on their faces. "Is she ok, Tara?"

Tara answered Faith's question still watching the door to the bathroom. "She's had a really hard semester. I mean I think she has. I mean she's out studying late nights and early mornings." She looked back at her best friend. "Sometimes, I feel like she's not even hearing me when we talk because she's so absorbed in a long list of what she needs to do."

"Have you talked to her about it?" Faith reached out and took Tara's hand.

"I try but we've only gotten to visit one time this semester and I don't want to w-waste the time." Tara glanced back toward the bathroom.

Faith studied her best friend closely. "You're upset but you don't want to ruin my big night? Is that it?"

Tara rolled her eyes at the new officer. "You're not supposed to be sensitive you know. Why don't you open your present?" She motioned toward the box.

"This isn't over," Faith said firmly. Then she carefully removed the small bow and opened the box. When she saw the present she smiled and held it up. "It's a Saint Michael's medal. He's the patron saint of police officers." The small medallion was silver and was attached to a strong sliver chain. She handed it to Tara who looked at it closely.

"It's a James Avery piece. Very nice," Tara assessed. "I like the sword."

Willow slid into the booth and reached out to take the medallion. "St. Michael?"

"Patron saint of Police officers," Tara explained. Willow handed back the medallion and Faith quickly fastened it and tucked it inside her uniform.

Faith looked up with a smile on her face. "Since we're celebrating my achievement tonight, I have some questions I want you two to answer."

Tara looked dubious at the request. "Ok, but we reserve the right to refuse to answer."

"And contact a lawyer," Willow joked.

Faith leaned back and playfully cracked her knuckles. "When did you two actually get together?"

"Do you remember the night you won the game against Riverdale" Willow knew she had a goofy look on her face just remembering that first night.

Faith nodded. "After I went out?" Tara nodded and Faith continued her questioning. "Who made the first move?"

Tara playfully raised her hand. "Guilty as charged."

Faith shook her head at the information. "Damn. I had my money on Red here."


"Man," Faith explained, "I was pushing you so hard that night. I mean hell for weeks before that. All that stuff about Frank wanting to go out with Tara and were you ok?" The dark haired girl didn't notice the look on Willow's face as she mentioned Frank.

Willow shook her head as if she wasn't sure she was hearing correctly. "Wait? You were trying to push Tara and I together?"

"Hell, yeah." Faith had a self-satisfied look on her face. "I mean it was obvious that you weren't going to take any action unless you got angry or jealous enough."

Tara started laughing at the thought that Faith not only knew that the girls wanted to be together but that she had been trying to get them together. "When did you know?"

"That you were a couple? I don't know – sometime later that spring. That you would be a couple?" She smiled at the two girls. "Willow was telling me about some book and you sat down at the table with us. I'm not into that stuff but it was like electricity between you two."

Willow laughed too. "You could have told us you know."

"Where's the fun in that?"

"Hey girls." Scout's voice cut into the conversation. "I'm sorry but it's time to get cleaned up."

"That's cool, Scout," Faith said sliding from the booth. Willow and Tara did the same. Scout gave Faith another congratulatory hug and told the other girls that she hoped to see them over break. They assured her they would be in and all left the diner.

Willow drove the girls over to Faith's apartment and they again told her how proud they were of her. They made plans to light the menorah candles the next night together and watched her get into her apartment safely. Tara watched Willow's profile in each streetlight they passed. She lifted the redhead's hand to her lips and whispered, "Now about that garden tub."

Part 8

About a year later

Tara woke slowly, content in the warm flannel sheets and thick comforter on the bed. The softness of the cotton against her skin made her feel held and happy. She opened her eyes and immediately saw the bedside table with its clock. 6:18 seemed pretty early to be waking but it was ok. Past the bedside table, she spied the menorah covered with wax where it had dripped from the first three candles. She rolled away from the bedside table and reached out, finding an empty spot and tangled sheets.

As she always did, Willow had left Tara's robe on the foot of the bed when she got up. Tara swung her feet over the side of the bed and quickly pulled on the robe and the new addition – a pair of wool socks. Feeling more awake and less groggy, she could detect the smell of coffee in the apartment and hear Willow typing on the computer. She stopped in the small kitchen to pour a cup and looked around. The room was approximately large enough to hold one person if that person wasn't very big and didn't move around much. Willow had considered getting a roommate but explained that between her long hours and her wish for privacy she really didn't want to share space with anyone even if it meant more space and a nicer place.

Tara warmed her hands on the "English Majors do it with words" cup and took a sip. The kitchen joined onto Willow's study, a room most people would have considered a living room. Tara smiled at her lover. A living room would have contained a couch, television, stereo, a few lamps. Willow's study held two large tables made of discarded doors on egg crates. The first table held a computer on one end and papers stretched over the remaining surface. The second, the table where the redhead currently sat, had another computer, a printer, and three cups of assorted colored pens. A chair sat just to her left as if someone had recently been studying the screen output with her but it now held three or four serious looking tomes. Low music emanated from the speakers on the computer Willow wasn't currently driving into the ground with her relentless keystrokes.

Knowing that as involved in her research as she was Willow wouldn't look up unless Tara made a noise, Tara leaned against the doorframe and watched her girlfriend for a few minutes. Tara liked to think that her lover had grown into herself in the last few years. When they were young, Willow had been wonderful, magical, perfect, but she had also seemed so unsure of herself. It was as if she were embarrassed of her own intelligence, awkward in conversation, and unsure of how to talk to other girls or to boys. But over the past few years, she had blossomed. College had challenged her to excel and learn. Perhaps more importantly, the school allowed her to be around similarly brilliant students. And it wasn't just Willow's academic achievements. She didn't seem to put any effort into her looks but she was absolutely breathtaking in Tara's eyes. And Tara knew that it wasn't just her. She saw other women and men looking at the redhead when they were out and knew what the women were thinking because she thought it too.

Tara's brow furrowed as she watched the redhead tap her foot and chew on the end of a purple pencil. Willow cocked her head, watching characters scroll on the screen and then hit a few more keys. She wondered what would have Willow working so intently on the third day of their shared vacation. Since the Rosenbergs were in Greece from December 18 through January 2, Willow and Tara had decided to spend the first week and a half of their vacation in Cambridge rather than going home.

This year Willow finished her exams before Tara and had been relaxing for a day when she picked the blonde up at the airport. This coming semester, Willow would be taking six hours of undergraduate credits to complete her degree and six hours of graduate credits as well as conducting research with her faculty advisor. Even though Willow insisted that she could go to Duke for her Master's work, Tara knew that the redhead would be absolutely insane to give up completing her graduate studies at MIT. The research she was involved in was likely to turn into a paid position next fall if not this summer and would look great on her resume.

Tara walked slowly across the floor and stood behind Willow before gently putting her warmed hand on the girl's neck. Willow tilted her head back and smiled. "Good morning."

Tara leaned down and kissed the redhead thoroughly. She pulled back and looked at the complicated figures on the screen. "I thought you were done with all your work?"

Willow leaned over and picked up the three books off her chair and stacked them on the desk. Tara took the newly vacated seat and leaned over to put her head on her lover's shoulder. The redhead reached around to wrap her arms around Tara. "I was done with my work but I couldn't sleep so I got up and checked e-mail. Ant had sent me a note with ideas for a few more tests for the project."

"The other research assistant?" Tara asked only half-listening to Willow's answer. She read the spines of the books Willow moved for her. On of them was "God Created the Integers" and given that the copy Tara had given her lover last night was still on the floor of the bedroom, she wondered why Willow hadn't told her that she already had the book rather than gushing about what great things she had heard about it.

Willow smiled, her face lighting up. "Yeah. Always thinking but funny too. You'll love Ant."

"I'm sure I will," Tara said. When Willow looked back at the screen Tara asked, "Do you know how much work you need to do?"

Willow hit a few keys. "Maybe a few hours?" She turned toward the blonde and ran her hand gently along her thigh. "Then maybe we could do something fun. Go to a movie or take a long walk?"

"In the twelve degree frozen tundra?"

"Ok, so maybe not a long walk." Willow giggled and leaned over to kiss her lover. "Maybe we can find something else to do with our afternoon." She waggled her eyebrows playfully and Tara laughed.

"I think I'll go take a Pilates class," Tara said as she stood up. She leaned over and kissed Willow, who had already returned her attention to her computer screen, on the top of the head and went back into the bedroom. Last spring she had found a nice Pilates studio and enjoyed going for a class whenever she was visiting. Since Willow was so frequently busy, it left her plenty of opportunities. She knew that Judy, the studio owner, would be happy to see her for the first time since last spring.

In fact, Judy was very happy to see Tara. The mid-forties woman and her husband asked the blonde to stay at the studio and have some tea and a visit. They actually drove her back over to Willow's apartment, saving Tara the bus ride in the cold weather. Both said to give their good wishes to Willow and dropped her at the sidewalk. Tara walked slowly to the door of the apartment building. She had greatly enjoyed her session and it gave her time to think. Some of what she thought about didn't make her very happy and she tried to put those thoughts from her mind.

Hoping that Willow would be done with her research, Tara smiled at her thoughts of enjoying a fun and relaxing afternoon. She opened the door to hear Willow's voice. At first she thought the girl was speaking to her but quickly realized that she was on the telephone. Willow's laughter carried through the small apartment. "I can't believe you said that!" "No." "I know did you hear that too?"

Tara closed the door and waited a few seconds, wondering if Willow had heard her. She didn't want to surprise the redhead by shouting through the apartment. She took the few steps across the small foyer area and leaned on the doorframe of Willow's office. Willow sat at her desk as if no time had passed since Tara's departure a few hours ago. The phone was jammed between her shoulder and ear and she was concentrating on her computer screen. Tara watched her with a combination of admiration and sadness. Willow had really accomplished a lot in her time at MIT. At just age 20 she would be one of the youngest and highest honored graduates this May. Her research was well above the level expected for an undergraduate student and she was expected to excel during her Master's work.

But sometimes Tara worried that her lover worked too hard. This semester in particular, their communication had been more sporadic than ever before. The redhead was frequently distracted during their phone conversation and had trouble remembering even what classes Tara was taking. She couldn't remember a time when Willow hadn't had a color-coded schedule worked out for her class and study schedule. In years past, Tara would call and Willow's first question was how studying for her English test or History paper was going. This semester, Tara felt encouraged if Willow seemed to remember that she was in school at all. She was very loving and sweet on the phone and repeated how much she missed the blonde, but wasn't responsive to deep conversations.

Willow looked up from her phone conversation and abruptly said that she needed to go and hung up. She stood up, stretching as she walked toward Tara. "How was your Yoga class?"

Tara took a slow breath. "Pilates."

"Right," Willow playfully slapped her forehead with her palm. "Dumb busy brain. Pilates. You said Pilates before you went."

Tara felt warmed by Willow's smile. "It was a very good class."

Willow wrapped her arms around Tara's waist. "Good." She nuzzled her nose in the blonde's neck. "I thought we could go out for Greek food? There's a new restaurant a few blocks away. Ant took me there a few weeks ago and I liked it. I think you will too."

Tara hugged her lover back and ran her hands up and down the girl's back. You're too skinny. "Yes. I need to take a shower first but I thought maybe we could go ice skating this afternoon."

Willow bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. "Yes. Ice skating definitely." She leaned in and sniffed before joking telling Tara, "And also shower definitely." Tara playfully swatted Willow's bottom. "I need to finish one more test. Do you want to wait to go eat or come back here after lunch?"

Tara's stomach grumbled and moments later Willow's did too. The two girls looked at each other and giggled. "I guess that answers the question," Willow said. Tara nodded and went to take her shower as Willow went back to the computer.

They returned to the apartment refreshed from the excellent food and the brisk walk in very cold weather. The brisk walk had turned into a brisk snowball fight and they were still laughing when they walked in the door. Willow started peeling off her wet coat and reached for Tara's too and they quickly embraced and began kissing passionately. When Tara's cold fingers hit Willow's stomach, the redhead yelped and jumped back a step, noting the smirk on Tara's face. "You can't take a little cold, Ms. Rosenberg?"

Willow smirked back. "I can but I still need to finish that test so we can go skating. You want to go skating right?"

Tara leaned forward and kissed her lover gently. "Sure, I want to skate," she agreed. She playfully swatted Willow's bottom and told her to go finish her work. Once the redhead had returned to work, Tara finished getting more comfortable an took her book to lay down in the bed and read for the few minutes she waited.

Her book was quite engrossing and she didn't notice the time passing until she looked at the clock which read 2:10. She and Willow had gotten back to the apartment about 12:30 which means that Willow had been working for over an hour and a half. She quietly got up and wandered toward the office, stopping when she again heard Willow's voice on the phone. The blonde turned and went back to sit on the edge of the bed. She wondered if she should interrupt Willow? Go skating by herself? What would be most likely to get Willow's attention? To be the most fun? To make them happy? She wanted so badly to enjoy this time together but Willow was all work and no play Willow and she was starting to get very frustrated. She leaned against the headboard and wrapped her arms around her legs, realizing that she was wallowing in her own self pity but unsure how to get out of it or stop. She had so many unanswered questions about Willow. About their relationship. About Willow's priorities. What was going on with the redhead? Was it just her school work or was there something else?

Willow woke Tara a few hours later by tapping her gently on the shoulder. "Tara? Baby?"

Tara rolled groggily toward Willow's voice. "Snuggle me."

Willow smiled and climbed into the bed in front of Tara so that the blonde could wrap her arms around her. "You fell asleep." She rolled over to face her lover. "You looked so beautiful that I didn't want to wake you."

"Missed you," Tara mumbled.

"Missed you too," Willow agreed, planting a kiss on Tara's adorable nose. She snuggled the blonde for a few more minutes. "I made us dinner." Tara sat up and nodded and Willow went to the kitchen and Willow returned to the bed with soup and sandwiches on a tray. "Chicken noodle and peanut butter and jelly?"

She handed the tray to Tara and slid in beside her to lean on the headboard. Tara took a bite of her sandwich. "You're nearly a college graduate and you still eat like a little kid." She smiled fondly at the girl.

Willow began eating the soup and intentionally slurped the noodles off the spoon. "If growing up means not eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I'll do nothing of the sort." Tara laughed, nodding that Willow's point was taken. "Ant eats the most disgusting things. Easy cheese and olives. Peanut butter and bologna sandwiches for breakfast. Totally gross."

Tara laughed again, somewhat uneasily but Willow didn't seem to notice. "I can hardly wait to meet Ant of the amazing brain and questionable diet. Maybe we should finish eating quickly so we can go to your party."

Willow agreed and they completed their meal, sneaking glances at each other as they finished eating. Once they were done, they both dressed and got ready for the party. Willow stepped behind her lover and wrapped her arms around her waist. "I'm not sure we should go to the party at all." She fanned her fingers out over the Tara's hips. "Maybe we should stay in. You know conserve heat?"

Tara giggled and turned in Willow's arms. "I don't think it's going to hurt us to leave the apartment for a few hours." She draped her arms over Willow's shoulders and looked her girlfriend up and down, smiling as she did so. Willow wore a pair of tight black jeans with black boots. She wore a green sweater that really set off her eyes. "You look so beautiful, Willow."

Willow leered at he lover. "I look like nothing compared to you, Tara." She waved her hand as if unable to find words to describe how fantastic Tara looked in the floor-length brown suede skirt and low cut white blouse.

Tara blushed and leaned in for a gentle kiss. "You still find me attractive after all these years?"

"Hubba hubba!" Willow enthused playfully. Tara laughed and Willow picked up the keys to her car. "After you, my lady."

As they walked down to the car, Tara could feel her insecurities surfacing. She and Willow had never gone to a party at either of their schools. They'd been out with a few friends for dinner or to watch videos but this would be the most people that they'd visited and she felt very nervous about it. She felt like there were a lot of things running through her head and heart and it was hard to keep them all sorted out these days. The past few days with Willow had been, with some exceptions, wonderful but she couldn't help wondering what she was missing. They had spent so much time apart in the past four years that it was shocking that they were still together.

In a few short minutes, they pulled up in front of a large house with people and music streaming out through the front door. Tara sat in the car for a few extra seconds getting her breath and Willow walked around to let her in. As she pulled her from the car, Willow placed a kiss on the blonde's cheek. "You'll have a great time. I promise." When she didn't see Tara smile immediately she added, "If you're not having a great time in 45 minutes, we'll go home and watch a video ok?"

Tara nodded and they started up the walk. Willow seemed quite happy and in her element as they began to make their way through the crowd. She apparently knew everyone as people kept stopping her to say hi or happy holidays. A few even wished her a Happy Hanukkah which Tara supposed wasn't that unusual at MIT. More than one person asked Willow where Ant was or when Ant would be there.

Once inside, the girls quickly found the room where all the coats were stacked on a twin bed and added theirs to the pile. Then they went into the kitchen which was apparently serving as the bar and each got a glass of wine. Neither woman abstained from alcohol but neither liked to indulge in common college-aged drinking fests either. They milled around the party, stopping to visit with some of Willow's friends and classmates. Tara felt like everyone was nice to her, even if she did feel left out of all the jokes.

After a while, Willow got involved in a debate over quarks or quirks or something and Tara decided to drift off to see what was happening on the other side of the room. Six or eight students sat around a table with shot glasses in front of them. They were circling the table, saying chemical names and then sometimes drinking. It was obviously a drinking game but she couldn't begin to imagine the rules. "Manganese…Iron…Nickel" went the offerings. When the person playing pronounced Nickel, a great roar went up and that person took a drink.

"It's like the drinking game sevens but with atomic numbers." Tara hadn't realized that Willow had left her conversation and was standing just next and a little behind her. She gave the redhead a confused look. "In sevens the players say numbers without saying a number that has a seven in it or is a multiple of seven. This is like that but the atomic number of the elements." She pointed at the guy who had just had the drink. "Chad skipped Cobalt which is 27 but forgot about Nickel which is 28 or 4x7." She smiled. "Or maybe he just wanted to take a drink. I'm not sure he's forgotten anything since he was in diapers." She took the blonde's hand and said. "Why don't you come over here and say hi to Ty?"

Tara nodded, happy to have the opportunity to visit with anyone she had met before. She knew through Willow that Julie had graduated the year before and moved to the West Coast. Willow wasn't even sure if Ty and Julie were still in contact.

"Tara!" Ty quickly gave the blonde a hug and stepped back to look at her. "You look more gorgeous every year."

"Thanks, Ty." Tara squeezed the other girl's hand, happy for the flattery as well as having someone to talk to. After a few minutes of listening to Ty and Tara discuss movies, Willow tapped Tara on the shoulder and told her she was going to visit the rest room.

"You know," Tara said a few minutes later, "I feel like I could use a quick trip to the rest room too."

She promised to catch up with Ty later and made her way toward a long line. By the time she reached the beginning of the line, she concluded that Willow must have found another bathroom since the girl hadn't emerged from this one. When Tara did come out of the rest room, she stopped in the kitchen to get a soda for herself and one for Willow and began circling the party to look for her girlfriend.

Rounding a corner, she stopped short as she spotted Willow holding court in front of a group of laughing friends. She looked natural and at-ease as the center of attention and Tara's heart did a flip.

It flipped the other direction as she took in the girl standing next to her lover. A woman stood next to Willow, very close at her elbow, hanging on her every word and laughing at all the right times. Tara took a few minutes to look at this newcomer to the party. The girl was about 5'10" with long curly black hair. Her eyes were dark enough to sparkle in the light of the party and she wore a pair of tastefully torn jeans, a wide belt, and a midriff top which showed off a toned and tanned stomach. Two thin silver chains were attached to the small ring in her navel and Tara gulped, then looked around to see if anyone had heard her. There you are, she thought. She knew this meeting was coming but hadn't expected it at the party.

She circled the group surrounding Willow and the mystery woman and came up on Willow's side. Willow was apparently just finishing a joke. "…whereas the Beauty Therapist uses Max Factor."

The crowd laughed easily and the dark haired girl followed up on Wilow's joke. "What's the difference between Max Factor and Quantum Theorist?" She waited a second before delivering the punch line. "Max Factor has models that work."

After the laughter died down, Tara gently touched Willow's arm and held out her soda. "I got you a soda, Sweetie." As she spoke, she looked the other woman in the eye, please to see her at least shift her weight to leave a few inches of space between Willow and herself. The newcomer took a drink from her own cup without taking her eyes off Tara. "You must be Tara," she said sticking her hand out in a way that made it impossible for Tara to avoid shaking it.

"Yes," Tara said simply before withdrawing her hand.

Willow looked back and forth between the two women. "Tara, this is Ant. Ant, Tara."

"Ant," Tara said, "of course. She of the peanut butter and bologna sandwiches for breakfast."

"Antoinette Custer," the dark haired woman explained, again extending her hand.

The crowd around the three women had started to drift off and Tara felt less particular about making a good impression. "Cleopatra was taken?"

Ant laughed at Tara's joke. "Actually yes." Tara continued staring at the girl and she continued. "I have a sister named Cleopatra and a brother named Paris. My father is a professor of Classics. My mother – History."

"How lovely," Tara said. "Willow's parents are professors too. It must be so nice to have something in common."

Willow looked back and forth between the two women as if trying to sort out the tension. "Tara," she said, turning to face her girlfriend, "this is Ant. She's the other researcher on my project."

"Yes," Tara said, setting down her drink and crossing her arms over her chest. "I know who Ant is. In fact, I think I've spoken to her on the phone."

Willow quirked up her eyebrow. "What? When did you talk to Ant on the phone?"

"I'm going to go get a drink and let you two talk," Ant finally said and drifted off into the party.

"When did you talk to Ant on the phone?"

Tara attempted to control her tone, not sure if her next words would come out as a scream or a cry. "When I've called you late at night."

Willow reached her hand out toward Tara but stopped when she realized that Tara wasn't moving hers, that they were still crossed firmly across her chest. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying why does she answer your phone and say that you're asleep or in the shower? Why do you know what she eats for breakfast?"

"I still don't know when those things happened," Willow shouted. She looked around and realized that people were looking at her. "Why are you being like this? This is insane. This is stupid."

"I knew we'd get there eventually," Tara shot back. "I'm stupid. You're a genius and I'm stupid. I don't even know how to play drinking games with atomic numbers!"

Willow huffed and reached out to take Tara's elbow and lead her into the hallway. "I'm not saying that you're stupid. I'm saying that these questions are stupid. I'm saying that this conversation is stupid."

"Which isn't at all like denying that what I'm saying is t-t-true!"

"What you're saying isn't true!"

"Leave with me."


"Leave with me," Tara still had her arms crossed over her chest and motioned with her shoulder toward the room that held their coats. "Leave the party. Go to your apartment. Pack a bag and go home. Don't say goodbye to Ant. Don't work on your research until after the break."


"Haven't you been listening to this conversation?" Tara took a deep breath as she realized that she was screaming and that everyone within 20 feet could hear her. "You're so busy all the time. It's school, school, school. Then it's Ant, Ant, Ant. Go be with me." She pounded on her chest. "Just me."

"Nothing is going on with Ant!" Willow looked wildly around the party as she screamed.

"Not yet," Tara said very calmly.

Willow pursed her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. "First off, she's not even family. Second off, even if she was interested, I think I could withstand her wiles." She lowered her voice and whispered, "After all, it's not like she's Frank."

Tara recoiled as if slapped. "Frank? You're bringing up Frank? Nothing happened and you know it, Willow."

"I know you said nothing happened," Willow retorted. She shrugged back in the direction the two women had been standing when she introduced Tara to Ant. "Just like I'm saying that nothing happened with Ant."

Tara took a deep breath to control her voice. "I'm leaving now. Are you going with me?"

"No. I'm not." Willow answered before adding on. "Stay with me, Tara."

Tara turned from the redhead with tears in her eyes. She could barely see to find her coat in the spare bedroom. As she searched the pile, she had only one thought in her mind. She will come get me. As she found her coat and buttoned each button. She will come get me. She made her way to the front door and walked down the steps. With each one she thought, She will come get me.

Willow stood in the hallway watching the spot where Tara had been standing. Tara had left. She left her at a party. She'd be back in a few minutes and they could leave together. They could talk it out. Willow took a few deep breaths. All they each needed was a few minutes to calm down. To be rational. Tara would come back in a minute.

She was startled from her thoughts by Ant tapping her elbow and holding out a drink. "Are you ok?"

Willow shook her head. "Yeah. Fine. Finey McFine."

"Everyone is dancing." Ant led Willow back into the heart of the party.

Willow watched the door.

She'll come back in.

Tara stood in the front yard waiting for Willow.

She will come get me.

Part 9

About a year later…

Willow replaced the candle in the center spot and was silent for a few seconds. She turned to look at Faith and whispered, "Happy Hanukah."

Faith smiled and returned the greeting before hugging the redhead. When the two girls broke their embrace Faith looked around. "So I guess no chocolate and money from the folks this year?"

She was obviously teasing and was quite surprised as Willow reached into the sideboard and pulled a bag of gold coins, the traditional gelt, and a ten dollar bill from it. Willow handed it to Faith and a matching set for herself. "'The folks,'" she used air quotes around the term, "said Happy Hannukah also." She took a bite of one of her coins and teased, "They also said that cops are used to getting the donuts for free and they'd better join the rest of the city."

Faith reached over to playfully swat at her friend. As she did she patted her stomach. "Does this stomach look like I've been eating a lot of free donuts?"

Willow sat in a chair and smiled. "Hell no, but you've always had that amazing metabolism."

"Gee," Faith laughed, "I wonder why."

"I'm going clean the dishes," Willow announced after a few minutes spent eating the chocolate. She stood and picked up both girls's dishes and walked into the kitchen, followed closely by Faith who brought their glasses.

"I can't believe that we can eat fried potatoes and applesauce for dinner and consider that healthy." Faith set the glasses in the sink and jumped up to sit on the counter as Willow loaded the dishwasher.

"They're potato pancakes and it's traditional." Even as she explained, Willow smiled to herself. It was really great that she and Faith had such a close relationship. Even after all these years of Willow being at school while Faith stayed in Sunnydale, they were close enough to tease like this or to talk about any number of serious subjects. She saw Faith's glance out the window as she was drying her hands. "Do we have enough time to open presents?"

"For presents, the undead can wait," Faith said rubbing her hands together in mock gleeful selfishness.

They went back into the dining room and saw the progress the candles were making – about half-way melted. Willow picked up a box and tossed it across the room toward the brunette who caught it easily and shook the box with a smile. She opened the box and immediately let out a small squeal of delight. "Awesome, Red!" She quickly hugged Willow and then pulled the running shoes from the box, looking at the size and style. "Shox. These are totally great." She kicked off her current footwear and tied the laces before standing up and bouncing on the new ones.

Not expecting Willow's reflexes to mirror her own, she pulled the redhead's present from under her jacket and handed it to her. "Thanks," Willow said as she ripped the blue wrapping from the box. When she felt the box, she assumed it would be the Star Wars box set or even Indiana Jones but she was pleasantly surprised to find the Colors Trilogy inside. She hugged Faith and set it on the sideboard. "I didn't know you listened that well," she teased.

"Both of you always talked about how much you loved those movies," Faith said as she picked up her jacket. "You sure you want to go out tonight?"

Willow grabbed her own jacket and nodded. "As long as you do most of the heavy lifting." She locked the front door behind them and lightly touched the mezuzah on the way out.

"Here," Faith said as she handed over a small black gadget. "It's a stun gun. We're going high-tech." She took a moment to show the redhead how to hold the item and how to set it off and then they started toward a cemetery. "So where are the folks this year?"




Faith watched Willow closely. "Are they going to see her?"

"They said something about calling her." Willow shrugged. "Why shouldn't they? I mean she's almost like their daughter if you think about it."

"What about you?"

"Are they going to see me?" Willow asked with intentional obtuseness. "They'll be home in a week and we can spend the rest of break together."

"You're an idiot." Willow didn't respond. She knew that Faith was trying to get her to respond so she didn't. "Why don't you call her?"

Willow stopped and leaned on a headstone. "And say what?"

"How about 'hi?'"

"I'm not calling London to say, 'hi." Willow said "hi" in a tone of voice that made it clear she thought it was completely out of the question. She stopped leaning on the headstone and continued walking, not really paying attention to where they were going. Faith could handle that by herself; Willow was really just along for the company.

"Ok," Faith said, "then how about, 'can I see you?' or 'I still love you' or 'I was wrong' or 'you were wrong?'"

Willow chuckled. "You were wrong. That would go over real well." She kicked at the ground. "Plus which, she's probably moved on with her life. Probably has a new girlfriend." She looked up expectantly at the brunette.

"Excuse me," Faith said as a vampire stepped around the side of the mausoleum they were nearing. "Hey ugly!"

"Who? Me?" the obviously stupid vampire answered as Willow laughed.

Faith also laughed before stepping forward to trade punches with the large demon. After a few punches to his face and one shot to her ribs, she got tired of the activity and quickly dispatched him with a stake to the heart. She tucked her stake back into her waist band and turned back to Willow still breathing heavily. "You asked me. No, begged me, made me promise, that I wouldn't tell you anything about her social life."

Willow crossed her arms across her chest and sulked miserably. "You've done a great job at that."

"Yeah, I know," Faith said as she now kicked at the ground. "I've done as good a job at not telling you anything about her social life as I have not telling her about yours." Willow scrunched her eyebrows as if trying to decipher what Faith was telling her. "Yeah, you two are so alike. She made me promise the same thing."

"Are we patrolling or what?"

Faith breathed out heavily and reached into her back pocket. "I got you something else for Hannukah." She handed a small card to the redhead.

"An international long distance card?" Willow tried to hand it back. "Very funny."

"I'm not being funny," Faith protested as she impatiently tapped her stake on the headstone of a very fresh grave. She looked at it. "Mr. William Johnson who died yesterday of neck rupture, please come out so we can move on with our night." She and Willow both plopped down on their butts and crossed their legs. Seeing that Willow was still extending the card, Faith took it from her hand. "You are stupid."

"You're kind of insulting tonight considering that it's a best friends's bonding night here," Willow accused.

"What happened, Willow?"

"You know what happened." Willow began picking blades of grass and carefully splitting them apart.

"You tell me."

"Didn't she tell you?"

"Stop massacring the poor grass," Faith said impatiently as she reached over and knocked a handful of shredded green from Willow's hand. "She told me what she told me but you haven't." She stood up and paced around the grave. "What is with this guy?"

Willow also stood up and kicked at the fresh dirt. "It was stupid."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Faith laughed at her own joke.

"Thanks for making this easy," Willow kicked harder at the dirt. "Hey Bill!" she yelled, "we're waiting here." Faith crossed her arms and looked expectantly at her friend. "We were at this party. My party. And she wasn't having fun."

She looked up to see Faith nodding her head.

"And Ant was there."

"The hot research girl?" Both girls paused as the dirt began to shift slowly. "Go ahead. This won't take long." Faith pulled the stake from her waistband.

"I didn't say she was hot but yes, the other researcher." Willow blew out a slow breath of air. "And she got this crazy idea that something was going on with the two of us and she got really crazy."

"That doesn't really sound like the girl I know," Faith said. It wasn't accusatory – just observational. "Here he comes," she said pointing at the top of the vampire's head and one hand starting to poke through the soil.

"Well she was really going off that night," Willow continued. "She said that if I loved her I would leave the party and leave school and come home with her."

"Why didn't you?"

Willow kicked at the dirt, knocking a large mound into the emerging vampire's forehead. "Oh, sorry." She laughed at herself as the words left her mouth. "I don't know. I didn't want to be controlled like that. And I was really pissed that she would accuse me of something like that. Like she thought I would cheat on her."

"Dude, you are taking forever!" Faith shouted. "Which you wouldn't."

"Which of course I wouldn't." Willow answered quickly. "And she left. And I thought 'hey, she'll be outside for a few minutes and come back in' and I thought I'd go out in a few minutes and we'd both have time to calm down."

Obviously frustrated with Mr. Johnson's progress, Faith reached down and grasped the collar of his suit jacket and pulled straight up. As soon as his chest was freed, she thrust the stake into it and watched him crumble.

"Poor guy never had a chance," Willow giggled. Faith fixed her with a look and then started walking again. Willow followed along. "But I guess it was longer than I though and I got outside and she was gone. So I thought she would be at the apartment but she wasn't."

"Right," Faith said.

"So I figured, 'ok, she's at home. I'll go home in a few days and we can talk.'"


"Right, except," Willow agreed. "Except that she didn't come home. She went back to North Carolina." The redhead ran her forearm across her eyes, attempting to press against her eyelids and will the tears not to come. "Because why would she want to come here? What did she have here to visit?"

"She was hurting," Faith said patting Willow's back.

"I know she was," Willow agreed, "but I thought we could work it out and she just wasn't even here."

The redhead's tears were flowing freely now but Faith pushed on. "Is that why you're so upset?"

"Fuck no. Sorry." Willow apologized quickly for her unusual profanity. "I mean she was right."

"About Ant?"

"What? No. I mean not about me and Ant." Willow bent down to pick up a handful of horse chestnuts off the ground and began throwing them at gravestones as they walked. "I mean I'm an idiot. Ant was interested in me but I was all clueless-girl. I didn't even know, not to mention being completely not interested."

"So what was she right about?"

Willow threw the last of her horse chestnuts and spotted a stone bench. She slowly walked over and sat down. "We did grow apart… I mean I don't know her like I did… when we were kids… and I let that… happen." She blew her nose on the sleeve of her jacket. "I just wish we could go back to like we were."

Faith bent down in front of Willow and placed her hands on the redhead's knees but didn't answer.

"Did you know she didn't even ask, I mean tell, me about the study abroad thing?" Willow looked at Faith who slowly nodded. She wiped her nose again and then took a deep breath. "We've spoken twice in the last year. One disaster and then she called to tell me about London." She looked around. "I mean how was I supposed to be supportive of her great opportunity when she's leaving me and leaving the country?"

"By being happy for her," Faith whispered.

"Now I'm taking relationship advice from you," Willow sneered. "Sorry. That was uncalled for."

"Damn right it was, Red."

Willow looked away from Faith's eyes and the brunette put her hand on the girl's chin to bring her focus back. "It's hard to remember a time when I wasn't completely in love with her." The redhead looked sadly at her best friend and took a breath. "I know that her favorite musician is Josh Groban, her favorite poet is James Dickey, she loves Strawberries but not Raspberries. She loves flannel sheets but she doesn't like slippers." The redhead smiled. "She's most ticklish behind her ears and she wants to have three children and I could tell you a hundred other facts about her."

Faith waited a few seconds before prompting Willow. "But?"

"But there's so much I don't know about her." She wiped at her eyes again. "I lie in bed some nights with hundreds of questions in my head: what is she doing? Does she miss me? What does she want from life? What are her dreams? Her fears?" She looked down at her shoes again. "What happened with Frank and why wouldn't she ever tell me?"

Faith waited a second, obviously waiting to see if it was a rhetorical question. "Maybe because it was miles from being important."

"But it was important," Willow pleaded, "it was important because it was something she wouldn't tell me. Something I wanted to know."

"I want to know how much my Sergeant makes a year. I want to know if Jimmy misses me. I want to know why my mom drinks so much and if she ever regrets it." Faith curled up her lips. "That doesn't make any of those things important or any of my business."

"Yes!" A vampire stepped around the corner of a mausoleum and smiled at the two girls. "I was hoping for a nice tender snack." He pointed his finger at Willow. "You look yummy."

Faith gave a bored look and sat down next to Willow on the bench. "I worked a 12 hour shift today," she told the redhead nonchalantly. As she did, she reached over, took the stun gun from Willow's hands and held it up just as the vampire reached them. She zapped him and handed the gun back to her best friend in one smooth motion before staking the writhing demon. "Do you want to go get coffee?"

Willow wiped her eyes on her shirt and nodded.

Faith stood pulled Willow to her feet and showed the telephone calling card. "Maybe by the time we're done you'll be ready to use this?"

"I doubt it." Willow answered.

Part 10

About a year later

Tara closed the book she had been reading and gently brushed her fingertips over leather binding. A smile graced her face as she slowly traced the fine lettering on the volume. As an adolescent she had no understanding of the beauty of books; she understood words but not books themselves.

"Let's get out of here," Faith practically bellowed as she reached across and pulled the book from Willow's hands, slamming it shut and tossing it into the empty chair next to her.

Tara jumped at the sound of the book hitting the surface of the chair, completely level so that it sounded throughout the cavernous library before skidding into the slats at the back of the chair. She took a deep breath and protested Faith's interruption. "W-willow was reading that, Faith."

Faith smiled at the two girls. "Oh come on. It's boring."

"It's not boring," Willow argued. "You're such a semi-literate, Faith. It's passionate and exciting and violent. How can you not like it?"

"The Cliff's Notes says he choked to death on a pill-bottle cap," Faith sneered. "How great a writer could he be?"

"One can certainly be a magnificent writer without living a perfect life, Faith." Giles voice sounded across the room and all three girls looked up to see him walking toward them. He bent slowly and picked up the book from the chair, running his hands over the binding as if checking a small kitten for injuries from a recent scuffle. He pulled out a chair and sat at the end of the table holding out the book for all three girls to observe. "Your recent abuse of Mr. William's masterpiece has damaged the binding right here," he pointed with his index finger, "and here."

"Sorry, G-man," Faith said without very much enthusiasm. "It's still readable isn't it?"

"Well yes it is," he breathed out a long sigh, "but I shall have to undertake to repair the binding."

Willow's head snapped up as she finally entered the conversation. "But we can finish reading it first right?"

"Yeah, Giles," Tara pleaded. They were nearing the climax of the play and she wanted to know how it turned out. And Willow would have half a melt-down if she had to stop reading one book and start another. Tara didn't care about reading multiple books at once. She usually had the book Willow was reading to them after school, two or three she was reading, and her school assignments but Willow wanted to start one book, devour it, and finish it.

"Books are valuable and precious." Giles said seriously. He looked directly at Tara. "It's not just the words within them which make them works of art. Their very workmanship is impressive." He held out the biding to the blonde and began pointing out the detail which had gone into this edition.

"Hey look at that," Faith interrupted, "Willow's dad will be here any minute to pick us up."

"You are in detention," Giles admonished with a roll of his eyes as Willow and Tara both quickly stowed their books in their bags and stood from the table.

"And it's been great," Faith said with a sarcastic wave of her hand. She patted the librarian on his tweed-covered shoulder and winked at him. "Thanks for having us." The three girls went quickly through the swinging doors giggling as they went.

She lifted the book to her nose and breathed deeply the smell of the leather. Giles had lectured and lectured, first in middle school and then high school. And somewhere in there Tara noticed that her own attitude toward the books was changing. He was right; books were works of art in every way. It wasn't just the wonderful words within them but the very way they were made. Willow loved the words. She loved the knowledge within books but she didn't really care how her knowledge arrived. A good website was as beautiful to her as a Hemingway first-edition. And Faith? Faith wanted to hear a good story and get Bs in all her classes (a relatively easy task with Tara and Willow studying alongside her).

The blonde remembered the day she'd gone to visit Giles at the library and discuss her option to study in England for a year. She found him in his office eating a cold turkey sandwich and cursing Thanksgiving leftovers. His reaction to her request for counsel was nearly as excited as she'd ever seen him as he described his favorite collections in the British Museum. He offered invaluable advice in finding a place to live and learning her way around the city. And she'd been at the Sunnydale High School Library for two hours before he casually asked if Willow was excited about her opportunity. When she didn't respond, he'd simply muttered, "Oh. I see. Well then," polished his glasses, and continued discussing her specific interests for her year abroad.

Her year abroad.

Her planned year abroad.

A year which had grown into a second. The University of North Carolina had mailed her diploma for a B.A. in English specializing in Creative Writing at the end of the summer and repeated their offer for her to begin her graduate studies either in residence or spending her first year in England. She wasn't sure that she'd be completing her Master's but she had eventually agreed to the requirements for her studies. It provided her with a stipend and relatively lax writing requirements. In fact, she'd far exceeded the writing requirements for her undergraduate degree the final two years in the program and was still outstripping them. She'd surpassed the University's unofficial but well-understood standards for publications. By the end of her Junior year, she'd published three poems in respected publications.

She roused herself from these thoughts, glanced at the clock to see that it was nearly half- past five, and finished putting her books and journal into her book bag. On the way she stopped and turned in the book she'd been studying at the counter with friendly greeting to the librarian on duty and a promise to see the woman tomorrow. Gladys was always helpful and friendly to the point that Tara couldn't tell if she was attempting to be more than just "librarian friendly" but the blonde maintained her distance and Gladys had never pushed the issue.

"See you tomorrow, Gladys," Tara said with a smile and made her way through the library toward the front doors. She reached into her bag for her umbrella and was surprised to see that it was not, in fact, raining. It was rather gloomy and dark and she walked quickly towards the bus stop as she stowed her umbrella. It was shocking for Tara, having grown up on the West Coast before attending school in North Carolina to move to a locale with such dark weather on a daily basis. Giles had warned her of that too.

But the hardest factor in her move was being away from her loved ones. She'd had virtually no contact with her father nor brother since leaving for college 5 years ago so being in England didn't make any difference where they were concerned, but Faith, Giles, and, yes, Willow were her family. She e-mailed Faith and Giles regularly but didn't speak to them by phone more than on special occasions.

The visit from Sheila and Ira last year had come at her lowest point while in England. She was feeling every bit of her loneliness. Then they'd arrived and spent two days touring London together and it had really pulled her together. Both surrogate parents had urged her to get out more, to make some friends and when she had started to do that, it had really helped for the remaining time in England.

But Willow.

Her first instinct was to put all thoughts of Willow from her mind. For two years, unless she was working, unless she was writing, she observed what she thought of as a "Willow-thought diet." She could and did talk to close friends but she didn't allow herself to wallow in regret. Two conversations. Two. That was all since that terrible, awful party. Since their fight. She could feel the tears prickling her eyes as the remembered that party, remembered standing in the front yard, in the snow. She knew, just knew that Willow would be out in a minute or two.

But then…

The lights in the house were blazing. And she found herself unable to tear herself away from the sight of Willow's dancing silhouette. Yes, she'd been unable to tear herself away for at least ten seconds. Perhaps twelve. She'd walked to a nearby house and with tears in her eyes, called Judy who had been so kind in picking her up, taking her to pack, and taking her to the airport. She'd cried on the plane until a flight attendant sat next to her, holding her hand. When she tried to get the woman to leave, she had insisted that the plane was half-empty and that Tara reminded her of her own daughter.

The next day she spent by the phone, barely getting up to eat or even go to the bathroom -- just waiting for Willow to call. For nearly a week she waited. When the call finally came, she found herself too angry, too hurt, to even speak rationally and Willow seemed no better.

She unlocked the door to her apartment and let herself inside, hanging her book bag on a hook by the entrance, before crossing to heat some water for tea. It seemed that all those years spent in Giles's company and now her time in England had created in her a predilection toward a nice cup in the late afternoon.

As the pot started heating she remembered her next conversation with Willow. It was Spring and the trees outside her window were budding. She watched a bird bringing worms to her young and knew that she had to call her former lover. Tara thought of the way the snow fell the last time she'd seen Willow and it chilled her once again. The phone conversation was, simply put, a disaster. Willow wanted to know why she was calling. Why hadn't she told the redhead about the offer? Why did she want to leave the country? How would they ever make things right with her in England? Tara remembered her own cold tone as she retorted that it hardly seemed a priority. Willow's pained silence was followed by a tearful "good luck" and a dial tone.

She sat at a barstool at the counter as she sipped at her tea.

Children. They'd been children. Children when they'd met, children when they'd become lovers, and children when they'd torn themselves apart.

And still, Willow was the only woman she'd ever imagined a life with. She allowed herself a minute every night. One minute to imagine falling asleep to the sound of Willow's voice telling a childish anecdote, to her hand holding Tara's fingers in her own, to the scent of her hair and the softness of her skin.

Her Willow-diet.

And today was a day off the diet. Tara set down her tea cup and crossed the crowded flat to a waist-high bookcase. She ran her fingertips gently over each branch and candle holder. Then she removed one white and one blue candle and placed each in their appointed places. She checked the clock again and confirmed that it was time to light the menorah.

When she had completed the ritual she retook her seat to watch the candles burn. She wondered if Willow still lit hers as regularly as ever and if she thought about Tara when she did. Tara, thought of nothing but Willow when she lit her menorah.

"Tara, over here!" Casey waved as Tara closed the door to the pub behind her and she felt relived to see that her friends had snagged the couch and coffee table area. It was not only the most comfortable area, it stayed quieter than the rest of the pub because it was behind the fireplace and the music was in front.

Tara quickly joined her friends. "I'm going to get something to drink. Does anyone else need a refill?" She set her bag in a chair. No one else asked for a drink so she promised to be back in a minute.

"Olivia!" Tara greeted familiar figure working behind the bar with a smile.

"Tara, how are you?" Olivia reached for a coffee cup and held it up with one hand while holding up a pint in the other. Tara pointed at the pint. "Someone's celebrating," Olivia teased.

"Just a bit," Tara admitted.

"I spoke to Rupert this morning," Olivia said, "he said he's sending your gift with mine so you'll have to come by next week."

Tara laughed. "He should bring yours. He hasn't been here in eight months."

"I know," Olivia agreed, "but he says that work's been really busy."

Tara never could tell if Olivia knew what was up in Sunnydale. "It gets like that I guess."

Tara picked up her pint. "I'll take that coffee in a little while."

"You know where to find it, sweetie," Olivia answered before turning to another customer.

Tara reached her friends and took a seat in the lounger at the end of the coffee table. She took a long drink from her pint and set it on the table.

"See," Claire said, "I told you she had good news. She's glowing."

Bella laughed. "Either she had a poem published or she spoke to 'her.'"

"Which her?" Casey asked.

Jules smacked the bearded young-man on the upper arm. "Wake up, Casey." She turned to the others. "Why do we have a friend who is so clueless?"

"Because of my striking good looks," he asserted.

"Because he always buys the first round." Claire joined in the teasing.

"Casey, you know damn well who 'her' is," Bella said as she noticed Tara's blush and the way that she hid behind a curtain of hair.

Tara smiled and pulled two envelopes from her bag. "Actually you're both wrong." She waited a second before holding up the envelopes triumphantly, one in each hand. "Two poems."

Jules leaned forward and snatched both envelopes from Tara's grasp. "Which ones, Tare?" Before Tara could answer, her friend extracted the first letter and then the second. "'One Shovelful of Dirt' and 'Pistachio.'" She declared to the others as she held up the letters proudly. From the way Jules got so excited with each of Tara's successes, you would have thought that she was the published poet herself rather than Tara. And that was fine with Tara. The few times Tara had read her work, she had felt nervous almost to the point of not being able to speak whereas Jules had no problem acting, reading, or singing and dancing in public.

Bella leaned closer to her outgoing lover and kissed Jules on the cheek. "I love both of those. Especially 'Pistachio.'"

"You don't love the funeral ones?" Claire teased.

"I guess I'm just not into the gloom and doom and death and destruction," Bella explained, "sorry, Tara." Tara shrugged her shoulders. "I don't mean that it's not an amazingly powerful poem that makes me cry my little eyes out every time you read it; it's just a bit of a downer."

"So speaks the mistress of understatement," Casey muttered before speaking more clearly. "She doesn't want to mess up her mascara." He had to sit back quickly to avoid the playful swipe from Bella.

Tara joined in the fun. "Like Bella has ever worn mascara."

"Well it clashes with my combat boots," Bella said as she lifted one foot from the floor and held it out over the coffee table.

The group laughed as Jules refolded the letters and handed them back to Tara. "Congratulations, Tara. So when are you going to publish a book?"

"And then you can start buying the first round," Casey said. He stood up and lifted his pint. "Speaking of which, anyone need a refill?" Having finished her celebratory drink, Tara requested a coffee and Claire asked for the same.

In spite of her happiness and pride at having published another poem, Tara had had enough of the spotlight. "Claire, how was your date?"

Jules immediately jumped on the question. "Claire had a date? With whom? Do I know her? Is she here?"

"You mean 'have I slept with her?'" Bella teased with a playful poke at her lover's trim stomach.

"Who slept with someone?" Casey set down his pint and handed the coffee cups to his friends before taking a seat. "Certainly not me," he mumbled under his breath.

Claire picked up her coffee cup and took a sip. "Me either, Case."

"Spill," Bella encouraged, joined by Tara.

Claire rolled her eyes before laughing as she remembered the date. "She's another graduate student in Invertebrate Biology. She's Sloan's research assistant."

"Oh, with the boots," Jules chimed in.

"Yes, with the boots. She was…" Claire searched for a way to describe the date. "Her favorite movie of all time? No scratch that. The best movie ever?" She waited a few seconds for dramatic effect. "The Wedding Singer."

Bella smiled encouragingly. "Well, it's a cute movie."

"Right," Claire said slowly, "but the best of all time? The best movie ever made?"

"So better than The Bicycle Thief?" Casey confirmed.

"Citizen Kane."


"The Godfather, Part II?"

Claire waved her hand at her friends as they all laughed. "My point exactly. I actually rephrased it to make sure that it wasn't just her favorite movie but the best ever made. The best ever made!"

"Well it shouldn't disqualify her," Casey argued. "I'd date her."

"You'd date anyone, Case," Jules pointed out.

"Well, only anyone who would date me." Everyone laughed at the young man's self- deprecating comment. They all loved him in spite of, or perhaps because of his miserable love- life. Claire often said that his optimism and continued effort to find Ms. Right were her inspiration to do the same.

Jules stood up and picked up a few empty glasses. "Anyone else?" After getting orders she went to the bar.

"I think I'll take this opportunity," Bella said as she pointed toward the ladies room.

"So our love lives suck," Claire concluded. "How about yours, Tara? Any news?"

Tara took a sip of her coffee. "No news, kids." When they continued looking at her. "I'm just…I mean…I'm not mad at 'her'" she held up her hands and used air quotes in an obvious quoting of Bella. "But I just don't know. I mean if I wanted to call her, I mean. How would that conversation, you know, go? How would it start?"

"How about, 'Hi, Willow'?" Casey suggested, patting Tara's knee.

"Or, 'I've missed you'?" Claire added.

Tara shook her head. "It's been two years. Shouldn't it start to…you know…be o-over, feel over?"

Casey tilted his head to show he was really thinking about Tara's question. Before he could speak, Jules returned with the pints and set them down. Seeing that they were involved in something heavy, she sat down on the couch silently, and leaned forward. "Maybe not," he finally said, "maybe it shouldn't be over. I mean you and she were…lovers, friends, everything for all those years. Maybe you actually found what we're all supposed to find and now you can't find anything else even if you were looking."

"Which you're not," Bella added, having returned and joined Jules on the couch.

"You're both a nightmare and a dream, Tara," Jules said. The others, including Tara all looked at her harshly. "I mean," She continued, "that you found true love at a really young age. And it wasn't some unrequited thing. It wasn't you loving a teacher or a girl who never loved you back. It was someone as passionate and driven and fun as you. And when someone loves that hard, that passionately, it's wonderful. But if something goes wrong, it goes wrong just as passionately."

"Passionately," Tara agreed with a slightly painful smile.

"But maybe that's what it's all about," Claire offered. The others raised their eyebrows at her and then shrugged as if trying to get her to elaborate. "I mean. Ok, you wanted to be a writer. A poet. And you're a damn good one. I mean really, better than we ever thought we'd know."

"Thanks," Tara whispered, touched by the sincerity of her friend's tribute.

"And she wants…what? To be a genius? To design things? Figure out how something works? Create new formulas and theories?"

"I guess."

"And right now you're both doing that. I mean you have this pool of emotion to build on for your art and she's obviously driven." Claire sat back as if trying to think of what else she had to say about it.

"Driven? She's a machine." Casey shook his head at Tara. "I know you don't check up on her, but she's really well known. Dr. August goes on and on about her work. I mean not just hers but you know, Willow Rosenberg is pretty well known. Especially considering her age."

"I'll take your word for it," Tara said, sipping at her coffee again.

"Hey, let's cheer up the mood," Bella said excitedly. Everyone looked at her waiting for her to begin. "Ok, new game: worst ice cream flavor and worst crush-in."

"Cherry and cherry?" Everyone laughed at Casey's suggestion. His hatred of cherry was well known. Some of his friends speculated that he was allergic and others reported some bad childhood experience. He wouldn't say the cause but he even avoided cherry tomatoes because of the name.

"Coffee and marshmallow," Jules suggested.

Bella looked disappointed at her lover's suggestion. "No on is trying hard enough. How about blood sausage ice cream with chocolate chip crush-ins."

"If we can make up ice cream flavors," Claire laughed, "how about gravy ice cream with wasabi crush-ins?"

Everyone laughed with various groans and declarations of "gross" around the table. By the time the night ended, it didn't matter any longer who suggested which flavor or just how gross they were. This close-knit group had discussed their love lives, studies, jobs, family, friends, and many other topics.

Part 11

About a Year Later

Willow took a slow sip of her mocha and looked around the small coffee shop in the corner of the bookstore. She'd been to a lot of bookstores and was very impressed. G's Books as the large banner over the door and signs all around the place proclaimed had the small shop feel to it in spite of its impressive selection. She spent her first hours here browsing the Physics and then Engineering sections and found them to be pretty well stocked. They appeared to only have scientific works in English but the clerk who came by to ask if she could help assured Willow that they could order any book that was still in print. Her foray into fiction had brought up fond memories of her attempts (one successful, one cut short) to read the entire middle school and then high school libraries. Of course she would have finished the Sunnydale High School library if she hadn't left school early to attend college.

Yesterday was her first visit to G's Books but she already felt like the store itself was an old friend. Much of the light was natural and the few fluorescents were mild. The wood paneling was elegant but not dark so that the space felt large. The owners had obviously caved to market pressure to put in a small coffee shop where Willow now sat and nervously twisted her shirt hem. Exhaling deeply she forced herself to concentrate on her book and worry about later, well, later.

Concentrating on the small volume in her hands was a challenge in itself. Every page, every poem seemed to evoke a universe of memories. The few verses which didn't march through her memory gave her a different appreciation of the work. A few of the poems, "The Librarian" and "Slow Dancing" made her smile with their subtle humor. Others, "A Shovelful of Dirt" and "Words Once Spoken" literally brought tears to her eyes. She could feel the pain as if it were happening all over again while still admiring the perfection of the art. Willow wondered if other people reading these works would feel they knew Tara as she did. As she used to.

As she wanted to again.

Faith answered the phone loudly on the third ring. "This better be about an apocalypse." When Willow didn't speak, Faith prompted her. "Red?"


Faith breathed deeply and Willow could hear her shifting the phone and moving around in her bed. "Do you know it's 2:45 in the morning?"

"Yeah." Willow ran her forearm across her nose and sniffled.

"Ok. You're calling me in the middle of the night. I'm guessing that it's not that you and Tara are lying in bed and you wanted me to be the first to hear that you're getting married?"

Willow smirked even though Faith couldn't possibly see her. "Good guess, Faith."


"Where is she, Faith?" Willow set her jaw. "I know that I never asked before but I have to know. Where is she? Is she seeing anyone? Does she still think about me?"

Faith took a deep breath. "I love you, Red." She waited a few more seconds. "Are you safe?"

"Huh? Safe? Yeah. I'm SafeyMcSafe," she laughed.

Faith let out a similarly relieved laugh. "Ok. It's the middle of the night and our minds and hearts don't always work the same in the dark. Call me tomorrow and I'll give you the 4-1-1 on her."

Willow pouted for a few seconds. "Everything?"

"Everything, Willow. Now go to sleep."

"Ok. Good night, Faithy McFaith." Willow giggled.

"Good night, Willow McWill."

Faith was as good as her word when Willow called the next morning at 8:02, not that Willow had doubted it as she lay awake for the next five hours. But she felt it was finally time to find Tara. Yes she could have done a search for the blonde on the Net but she wanted to know some other details. As Willow's career progressed, her options laid out in front of her, she'd found it increasingly obvious that she couldn't make any decisions until she knew what her chances were, if there was any chance with Tara.

And now, Ms. Plan-Everything, Ms. Options-Confirmed and Fire-Exits located, sat in the coffee shop of a San Jose bookstore, counting the minutes until 7:00. The book was, simply put, brilliant. Willow had known for years how incredibly talented Tara was. Even when they were kids, her writing was amazingly powerful. But this…It was obvious that somewhere in the last three or four years, Tara had honed her writing skill. Willow lacked the vocabulary to property discuss or even understand the passion and expression of Tara's art. What she could understand was that Tara had found a way to whittle the point of her feelings to the exact word or expression which could cause the reader to feel it in her heart and soul.

She had read every poem at least four times. The blurb on the back cover was vague and highly complementary hinting at young genius, precocious talent, and emotional pain and loss. The small picture showed Tara in ¾ profile-a clear black and white photo that nearly made Willow's mouth water. She found herself stroking her fingertips over the blonde's eyelids, nose, and jaw line for minutes at a time. She remembered and forced herself (unsuccessfully) to not think about the times she'd done just that for real. It had been a guilty pleasure, then an obsession, and finally an inside joke between the two girls as Willow traced and traced her lover's features. "Sculpting" they both called it-Willow's lack of artistic talent fuelling the irony.

Even though the pamphlet announcing the reading clearly said that Tara worked at the store, Willow hadn't caught a glimpse of her ex- lover today nor yesterday. She hadn't felt that she could ask someone when the blonde would be in so she spent most of the day browsing, reading, and drinking coffee or mochas with the fantastic honey- sweetened muffins in the shop. She looked again at her watch to see that it was only 35 minutes until the reading. Although she'd planned very little about this visit-this ambush her mind kept accusing her-she did know that she wanted to join the reading just as it was about to start or just after it started and sit in the back. The last thing she wanted was to pull Tara's focus or throw off her delivery.

And what did she want? What did she think was possible? Would Tara smile, laugh, pull her into a tight embrace? Faith had sworn that Tara wasn't seeing anyone but did that mean that she would want to even talk to Willow? She'd been so so hurt, the last time they spoke.

And these poems. She knew the story behind "Words Once Spoken" or at least her story. She didn't know Tara's side until she'd read it. And there were other works here too that hinted at the darkness following their breakup. She smiled as she thought of a few poems that hinted at better times too. A very small part of her wanted to feel used to see their most intimate moments so clearly expressed on the page but the larger part wanted to stand on a table and point across the room shouting, "I did that! That's the woman I loved and I made her feel that way!" The woman you still love, her internal critic shouted back. The woman you should have followed across the ocean, should have followed out of the party, should have followed anywhere…

She wondered what she would say when they were alone. In a dream she'd seen it go so smoothly when she was honest and a little desperate:

Things fall apart. They fall apart so hard. You can't ever put them back the way they were. You know, it takes time. You can't just …have coffee and expect…There's just so much to work through. Trust has to be built again, on both sides …You have to learn if …if we're even the same people we were, if you can fit in each other's lives. It's a long…important process, and …can we just skip it? Can-can you just be kissing me now?

But this wasn't a dream. It was reality and reality meant that there were things to work through.

Did Tara want to work through anything? Would she be happy to see Willow or turn her back on the redhead?

6:48. Willow didn't know whether she wanted time to speed up or slow down. She stowed her book in her bag and made a trip to the bathroom, taking extra time to check her hair, her face, her appearance. She looked under the stalls to confirm that she was alone and faced the mirror. "Hi, Tara…" Her courage failed her. What would she say?

When she emerged from the bathroom it was a few minutes before seven. She nearly crept toward the reading area. The store had apparently done some rearranging for this event as a few bookcases were pushed closer together than would be useful. Forty to fifty chairs were lined up in front of a few facing chairs and a small table which held a bottle of water. Willow stood next to a bookcase and appraised the crowd-45 or so audience members-who seemed to all hold copies of the book. Most were young women and her gaydar was getting such heavy signals she felt like she needed to shut it off for the evening.

Even though Faith had sworn, had promised that Tara wasn't seeing anyone, Willow couldn't help but wonder. What if one of these girls were Tara's girlfriend? Her-Willow could hardly even think the word- lover? Maybe Tara was seeing someone and hadn't told Faith about it. It wasn't impossible.

Tara stood to the side of the stage area. Really there was no stage; it was just the chair and table and water bottle in a cleared area facing the audience. She was speaking to two other women quietly. Her hair was darker than Willow had ever seen it. Willow remembered when Tara was young, how she would put lemon juice in her hair before going out in the sun to lighten it. Apparently she had given up on that habit. Now her hair was almost light brown, the length past her shoulders. It was pulled back by a pewter hair clasp that Willow recognized as belonging to Tara's mother. That clasp was the only part of Tara's outfit the redhead had seen before. Tara wore a long-sleeve blouse of a brilliant royal blue and a khaki skirt with embroidery along the hemline. On her feet were a pair of brown sandals and her ears were adorned with a pair of small silver earrings with some sort of bauble hanging down an inch or so. Much as the fantasy appealed to the redhead, Willow was pretty certain that walking up and stroking the earrings was not going to be a successful approach.

The conversation between Tara and the other two women broke up and one of them stepped to the podium. Willow quickly slid into a seat on the aisle in the second row from the back. The girl next to her shifted her backpack to rest it against the other leg of her chair and gave the redhead a slow look up and down.

"Hello everyone. Thank you for coming." The woman at the podium had a nice speaking voice that resonated through the close space. "I am Gay Treanert, the owner of G's books. I have the very special honor tonight of introducing a poet, writer, and friend – Tara Maclay." Willow joined in the applause at the mention of Tara's name.

"Before Tara takes the podium to read a few of her very powerful poems," Gay explained, "Please know that she will be reading for about 30-40 minutes. Then she will be signing copies of this her first publication which is available at the display near the registers."

For a few minutes Gay read from the initial reviews for Tara's freshman effort. Willow attempted to concentrate on the woman's words but she'd read them herself earlier in the day and really could only concentrate on watching Tara. The blonde looked a little nervous but not nearly what the girl Willow once knew would have been. In fact, Tara looked downright calm compared to the butterflies swarming around Willow's GI tract. So far it was obvious that Tara hadn't noticed her ex-girlfriend in the crowd and Willow didn't know what would happen when she did. She was starting to really question her plan to just show up. What if it completely threw Tara off in her reading? She didn't want to ruin Tara's big day.

When Gay completed her introduction and announced "our own Tara Maclay," Tara walked slowly over to the podium, stopping to accept a hug from the store's owner on the way. The applause was louder than before and it seemed to Willow that Tara stood a little straighter and walked taller as she heard the sound. She sipped from her water bottle before turning to face the audience.

"Thank you for coming tonight," she began as she let her eyes drift over the audience. She seemed to hold eye contact with most of the audience members for a moment or two and Willow wondered if it were an intentional act meant to involve her listeners on an emotional level. She also felt her heart-rate speed up when she realized that Tara would be scanning the entire crowd. She would see Willow and then what? What would she think?

Willow noticed immediately the change in Tara's voice. It seemed slightly deeper, less childlike than she remembered it. More unfamiliar was the accent. Although she could still detect Tara's California accent, it now seemed to be mixed with a touch of an English accent. Apparently her time in England had colored, or coloured she laughed to herself, Tara's voice.

Willow glanced at her hands, twisting the flyer announcing Tara's reading into a small and smaller ball in her lap before returning her gaze to the woman at the podium. Tara's mouth dropped open slightly as she spotted Willow. Their eyes locked but only for a second before she continued scanning the crowd. In that second, Willow couldn't tell Tara's response to her presence. Was she mad? Confused? Excited? She didn't know.

"I would like to read a few of the poems from this book and then I have a few new ones to share with you," Tara began.

Willow leaned forward in her chair as Tara looked at the papers in her hand. Apparently she had brought some speaking and reading notes. Having never been to a poetry reading, Willow wondered idly how one would decide which works to read and in what order. How had Tara learned this skill? When?

The blonde began with a fun poem called "Pistachio." It seemed to be simply enough about a random afternoon trip to get ice cream. It was impossible to determine whether the speaker was a child or adult but the passion for the treat was unmistakable. When she finished, the laughing, happy crowd, applauded.

"It's hard to decide which poems to read," she confessed to the audience.

"That Curve of your Hip," a woman sitting a few chairs to Willow's right shouted playfully.

Tara laughed a little nervously and smiled at the audience. "Someone always wants to hear that one. I wonder why." The crowd chuckled along with her.

"I guess I can accommodate a request." She winked as she said it and then launched into a very steady reading of the work. Willow could feel the blush rising in her cheeks and noted that Tara had glanced her way two or three times throughout the reading. She wondered how Tara could say those words without feeling embarrassed. The girl she once knew was shy about holding hands in public. She finished the poem to greater applause than the previous work.

Tara didn't pause before introducing her next reading. "When I was fifteen, my mother passed away." A silence fell over the crowd as she spoke and Willow began to wonder if the blonde were weaving some sort of spell. Not a true spell, an enchantment, but she seemed to be fully controlling the emotional construct of the group. She'd taken them to funny and nostalgic to extremely sexy and now was going for heart- wrenching honesty. Throughout her reading of "One Shovelful of Dirt" Willow swore she could hear a pin drop in the room. Even though she had read the poem more times than she could count today, she felt hot tears in her eyes and falling down her cheeks. From the sniffles when Tara finished the reading, she knew that she wasn't the only person so affected by Tara's art.

The remainder of the reading passed quickly, more quickly than Willow could have imagined. When Tara finished, thanking the audience profusely, Willow let out a long breath. The crowd began to mill forward as Tara took a seat behind the small desk with a pen. A few audience members drifted off but nearly all of them brought their copies of the book and asked her to sign them. Willow waited and watched, noticing the casual and comfortable way Tara spoke with each visitor. While some only stayed a few seconds, other women visited for minutes and Willow felt jealous in spite of herself at the way Tara laughed with them.

Finally seeing that the crowd was thinning out, Willow steeled herself for the meeting. By the time she reached the front of the room, Tara had already stood up from the table. Gay and the other woman had joined her and were hugging her and shaking her hand. The redhead waited as Tara spotted her out of the corner of her eye but before Tara could speak, Gay also spotted her. "Look, Tara, another fan." She chuckled and winked at the redhead. "She must be a fan. She's been here nearly all day."

Tara tilted her head for a moment as if trying to understand what Gay was saying. "You've b-b-been here all d-d-day?"

Willow glanced over to note the shocked look on Gay's face. She hadn't heard Tara stutter throughout the reading and had assumed that the girl had outgrown or trained herself out of it. But apparently the stutter wasn't completely gone.

"Your book is brilliant, Tara." She looked at her feet and inhaled again. "Just. I mean…"

"You…you came?"

Willow shrugged and reached forward to touch Tara's hand before realizing the folly of the motion. "It's your first book."

Gay looked back and forth between the two girls as if trying to understand what was going on. Seeing that no explanation was immediately forthcoming she extended her hand. "I'm Gay Treanert."

Willow looked at the hand in front of her and took it in her own. "Willow Rosenberg. Very pleased to meet you."

"The Curve of Your Hip," Gay said with a teasing smile as she came to the obvious conclusion.

Willow blushed and looked down at her feet. It was one thing to have that poem "out there" but to have someone put two and two together and realize that it was about her, about her and Tara was just, well, kind of embarrassing. At least she hadn't mentioned "Words Once Spoken." "I'm not trying to embarrass you, Willow," Gay said. "Look, some of us are taking Tara out tonight to celebrate the book. Why don't you come?"

Willow glanced up at Tara to see the blonde's eyes bug out slightly as if she couldn't believe that her friend had just invited her ex- lover out with them. It seemed that Tara didn't want her there. Maybe this was a mistake. She just didn't know. "Can you give us a second?" Willow asked Gay.

The shop owner smiled warmly at the two women. "Sure." She turned to Tara. "You were fantastic, sweetie. We've got reservations at the usual place at 8:30." Tara nodded and Gay gave her a quick hug before gliding away to visit with some customers.

"Look, Tara," Willow said in a rush, "I'm …I mean I would love to talk but, I mean, I I I'm going to be here for a few days so if you want to just, you know, visit with your friends tonight. You know, celebrate? I totally and completely and did I say totally understand."

Tara bit at her bottom lip for a moment and Willow glanced at the blonde's hands. They held a copy of the pamphlet advertising her reading and the redhead noted that it was in approximately the same shape as the one she had held throughout. "W…W-why don't you come? I mean if you would like?"

Willow lifted her eyebrow. "Are you sure?"

Tara's voice sounded a little hesitant. "Yes." Then she smiled a twinkle in her eye and spoke more authoritatively. "Yes." She waved her hand to indicate that they should go ahead to the restaurant and Willow fell into step beside her. "Besides, I've been getting teased about the Curve poems for years. Tonight you can see what it's like."

Willow turned her head, seeing the teasing look on Tara's face and the way she held her teeth at the tip of her lips. It was a new expression and one that she immediately decided she liked. Although she didn't know how Tara felt about their relationship, what relationship? or even how she felt about Willow being here, the blonde's teasing made her relax slightly.

A half an hour and many directions and confused looks on her part later, Willow stood in the foyer of a small restaurant. She was just about to approach the hostess and ask if Tara and her friends were here when Gay, another woman, and a young girl came in the door behind her. "Willow," Gay greeted her warmly, "this is my partner Joanne and this is our daughter, Grace." She turned to her partner and explained, "This is Tara's friend Willow. She came to the reading tonight and I invited her to join us."

"Nice to meet you," both Joanne and Grace said. Willow shook Joanne's hand before stooping down in front of the girl she estimated to be about ten. "Nice to meet you, Grace." She extended her hand and Grace shook it.

"You're Tara's friend?"

Willow smiled at the little girl. "We haven't seen each other lately but I think we're friends."

Grace smiled back. "Then you're my friend too. Do you want to sit by me?"

Willow stood up and extended her hand to take Grace's. "Since I don't really know anyone that would be nice. Thanks for asking."

Before they started walking Grace turned to her moms. "I'm going to sit with Willow and keep her company, ok?"

Both women smiled at their daughter and at each other. "That sounds very nice, baby girl."

Grace pulled Willow along until they reached a table which had Tara at the head and six or seven other women sitting near her. The redhead smiled at Tara who smiled back but continued her conversation with the girl sitting next to her. "Here are two seats," Grace said with excitement as she touched two chairs near the other end of the table.

Willow sat by the girl and opened her menu. Then she leaned toward Grace. "What is good here?

Willow followed Grace's dining advice and they both munched on the chips as they waited for their dinner. Joanne came over to say hello again and check that Grace wasn't "bugging" the redhead but Willow assured her that she was enjoying it. The hostess had given the third- grader a paper and crayons which Grace found insulting but Willow pulled a few different colored pens from her bag and extended them.

Willow found that the evening passed quickly. She was having fun with Grace, drawing boxes and buildings in perspective while Grace suggested unusual additions like puppies on windowsills and trees growing on the balustrades. After a while, Willow handed Grace the pens and the young girl drew for her while Willow made colorful suggestions. Each time she looked up, she noted that Tara was involved in a conversation but she was relieved to see that when she caught the blonde's eye, Tara smiled at both Willow and Grace. Seeing that Willow was looking at Tara, Grace informed the redhead, "I'm going to marry her when I grow up."

Willow smiled at the young girl and restrained a chuckle. "That's what I always thought too."

Grace knitted her eyebrows together and pursed her lips. "I don't think we can both marry her."

Willow pursed her lips back and nodded her head. "I think you're right. What do you think we should do about it?"

Grace considered the question seriously. "Do you know how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors?"

Willow rolled her eyes. "I was only Sunnydale Junior High eighth grade Rock, Paper, Scissors champion."

Before they could throw their first plays in what they'd agreed would be a best-of-fifteen series, Willow felt Tara tap her shoulder and then saw the blonde kneel down by her chair. "Hi."

Grace leaned forward quickly and hugged Tara tightly. "Tara, you wrote a book. That's so good!"

Tara settled back onto her heels. "Thanks you and thank you for the flowers. Your mom said you picked them out."

Grace bounced in her seat slightly. "I know you like daisies."

"I do," Tara agreed and looked at the drawing covered paper on the table. "Have you been keeping Willow entertained for me?"

"I have," Grace told her proudly.

"Well I really appreciate it because she doesn't know anyone else here." The blonde lightly touched Willow's knee as she spoke.

"We've been having a great time," Willow said with a smile at Tara and a wink at Grace. "In fact we were just about to have a little Rock, Paper, Scissors contest."

Tara laughed. "Did you tell her you were Sunnydale Junior High School champion in eighth grade?"

"Of course." Willow nodded at Grace. "I don't want her to lodge a protest after I win this contest."

"You're not going to win," Grace said with a very serious look on her small face.

Willow laughed. "What are you two playing for?" Tara asked innocently.

"We can't tell you but it's very important," Willow said.

"Yeah," Grace agreed with a giggle.

Tara looked back and forth between the two girls. "Something tells me I should be concerned." When Grace giggled more she smiled at the girl and winked. She touched Willow on the knee again. "We won't be here that much longer."

"Ok," Willow said glancing at the floor.

"Do you …want to come over and have a cup of t-tea or something after we leave?" Tara offered.

Willow's eyes shot back up and she smiled broadly. "Yes. Yes. Definitely. That would be nice and did I say yes already?"

"Ok, I'm going go back to my seat. You two stay out of trouble ok?" Tara said leaning over to give Grace a kiss on the cheek.

Willow watched Tara return to her seat and then looked back at Grace. "Ok, our tournament…" Willow counted to three and they both shot their fingers. The redhead won the first but was easily able to intentionally lose since she realized very quickly that Grace always shot the option that would have beaten Willow's last offering.

When they finished their competition, Joanne came over to interrupt them. "Gracie, we need to go home and get you ready for bed." She turned to Willow. "I hope you had a good evening."

Willow smiled at both mother and daughter. "I had a great time." Grace slid from her seat and gave Willow a hug which the redhead returned before standing up to shake Joanne's hand.

As Grace ran over to tell Tara goodbye again Joanne leaned forward to whisper. "You're Tara's Willow?"

Willow glanced over at her ex-girlfriend who was standing to say goodbye to Grace, Gay, and some other friends. "I'd say that depends on Tara," she confessed.

Joanne grinned at the redhead's answer. "Then good luck, Willow Rosenberg," Joanne said leaning forward to give the girl a hug.

After Joanne, Gay, and Grace left, Willow excused herself to visit the restroom. When she returned, she saw that Tara was the only person still at the table. The blonde stood up to meet her coming across the floor. "Do you w-want to follow me?"

Anywhere, Willow thought but what she said was, "Sure. That would be great."

Tara gave her directions and at Willow's urging they exchanged cell phone numbers also in case they became separated in the darkness and traffic.

Twenty minutes later Willow exited her car and followed Tara up the walk to a small duplex. She looked at the facing of the building, admiring it and stopped to smell the potted flowers on the porch. "This seems nice."

"Thanks, Willow," Tara said as she opened the door. "I've been here for about six months and I was very lucky to find it."

Willow stepped through the door behind her ex-lover and looked hungrily around the apartment. Having been away from Tara for so long, she felt almost like anything she could see, any information she could glean would make her feel closer to the woman. Her visual perusal of the room was interrupted by Tara's voice. "I need to visit the restroom." She blushed as she continued, "I didn't at the restaurant."

"Of course," Willow smiled. Left alone she continued to look around the room. On the dining room table stood three vases of flowers. She smelled them each in turn.

Her investigation was interrupted by Tara's voice as the blonde returned. "The roses are from Faith and Giles; the tulips from friends in England; and, the carnations are from your parents." Willow smiled and nodded and Tara held up the daisies Grace had given her. "Speaking of which, I should get these into water."

Willow turned her back to the flowers as she watched Tara walk through a door, obviously into the kitchen. As her eyes followed the blonde, she noticed a small shelf on the wall. She stepped toward the shelf, recognizing with a smile a familiar object. She picked it up gently noticing again the nice workmanship on the Willow tree and the fact that there was wax on half of it.

Tara returned a minute or two later with a new vase and set it the coffee table. "I started a pot of water for tea."

"When did you light the menorah?" Willow asked as she reset it on the shelf.

Tara smiled. "Just before I came to the shop."

Willow reached into her bag, unsure how to bridge the uneasy silence. "I realized you never wrote anything in my book for me." She extended it toward the blonde.

Tara approached with a knowing smirk on her face. "Yes, I did, Willow."

"I'm not here to fight but I think I would have noticed if you had written in it. I've had it all day," Willow said with a puzzled look on her face.

Tara smiled widely as she took the book from her ex-lover. "You never would read the title pages, Willow." She held out the book so that Willow could see the dedication:

For Willow and every one of our Stars

To be continued...

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