Author: Jacks aka WiccanHandprintz
Willow woke early, having been plagued by dreams that she could not quite recall, but that had left her with a distinct feeling of discomfort. She went to the bathroom that connected to her own bedroom, and washed her face. The cool water against her skin made her blink and wipe at her eyes, waking them fully. She stayed there a moment, gazing at her reflection in the mirror above the sink. Willow noticed vaguely that she wasn't focusing on her usual fallbacks: the paleness of her skin, the circles under her eyes. Instead, she raised a hand and tugged at a disheveled lock of burnt crimson hair, taking notice of the intense contrast between it and her wide green eyes for the first time in years. Without allowing herself to think on the reasons for her actions, Willow slid the mirror to the left, revealing the medicine cabinet hidden behind it. She picked up her fine-bristled brush and began to drag it through her hair, taming the fuzzy knots and giving it more of a sheen than it had had for a long time.
Finished brushing, Willow washed her face again, this time actually taking the time to use the citrus-scented soap that Buffy had sent her a few months back. When she looked up at her reflection for a second time, Willow saw that her cheeks actually had some color to them, and that her mouth didn't look quite so tight and controlled.
I'm making myself pretty for Tara, Willow thought to herself, and this time did not immediately punish herself for the idea. She remembered that soft smile, the encouraging way Tara had taken her hot chocolate. Maybe... just maybe...
Well, no use thinking like that. They'd only spent an hour or so talking; there was no need to go to any extremes. Willow ran a hand over her chin-length bob, and gave herself a quick, somewhat sheepish smile. Take it slow. Wait and see. Do not get your hopes up, and do not do something stupid.
Willow slipped out of the bathrobe she slept in and pulled on a pair of baggy slacks, unconsciously trying to sabotage the effort she'd taken in brushing her hair. She matched the slacks with a black tunic top, one with sleeves long enough not to show any skin between where they ended and where the ever-present opera gloves began.
Padding towards the kitchen, Willow went to the window and looked out. Though her view was blocked, she could feel the presence of the FBI agents stationed to guard her as if by... well, magic. It was early morning still, and the sun was just rising. Willow, still at the window, was caught by one of the first dizzying rays of light that arched through the glass. It fell across her face, making her squint her eyes against the unexpected brightness, and Willow fancied she felt a tinge of warmth.
How long had it been since she'd done just this? Just stood there in the sunlight, feeling it wash over her skin? Too long, Willow decided. But then, just as her lips were curving in the soft ghost of pleasure, Willow recalled sharply why she'd come to the window in the first place. FBI.
She backed away from the window, her bare feet unknowingly falling into the swath of sunlight that lay across the floor. Willow turned from the glass and walked to the stove, putting on the kettle for tea. Her hands, as she reached for a mug hanging on one of the hooks above the stove, were steady, and Willow couldn't help but straighten a bit. She felt, through the familiar stir of fear and uncertainty, the remnants of that simple warmth from standing alone in the sun. She felt, in fact, just a little bit strong.
Willow had gone through two cups of tea and a few small bites of a piece of toast by the time Tara entered the room. The blond, it appeared, had slept about as well as Willow herself. Her skin was a little paler than it had been the night before, and her eyes looked tired. Still, Willow saw that she was moving with a decidedly unexhausted unconscious grace and softness of limb that made the redhead's heart beat just a small bit faster.
"Good morning," Tara said, seating herself opposite Willow in a mirror of their positions the night before.
"Morning," Willow replied, gruffly. The instant increase in heart rate had thrown her off balance, and Willow found that she was suddenly nervous in a way completely foreign to her. Tara looked at the kettle on the stove, and then smiled a little.
"Mind if I h-have some tea?"
"Sure." She knew that she was not holding up to her decision to stop being so rude to Tara for no reason, but Willow's monosyllabic answers didn't seem to be offending the blonde woman, so she didn't make the situation even more awkward by trying to apologize for her bluntness.
"I thought I'd d-d-do some w-work upstairs t-today, if that's all right," Tara offered, sipping quietly at her tea.
"That's fine." There was a pause. "I... I don't think I thanked you last night." Willow cleared her throat before continuing, not looking at the other woman. "For staying, I mean. I do... um, I appreciate... Well, I guess my friends would say I could use the company, so..." She forced herself to stop, recognizing the dangerous signs of babbling. Willow cursed to herself, fighting the urge to run a hand roughly through her hair. This was ridiculous. She hadn't acted like this during their conversation last night! She had been downright reserved, in fact!
"Oh! no, it's no problem," Tara insisted, an odd quickness to her response. "I, I n-need the work. L-like I said."
"Right, of course," Willow answered, quite coolly, if she did say so herself. She still wouldn't look up from her mug. (A very respectable one this time, of course. A college mug, in fact.)
"And..." The redhead did look up then, swiftly, her eyes flicking to Tara's face. The blond had a curious look, as if she were struggling with something. Then- "I d-did like the s-s-sound of an adventure." Willow scoffed.
"Hardly. Raimey is no adventure. You'd be better off if you'd left the instant Henderson offered you the chance." She had taken the moment to gulp down the last of her tea, and so missed the flash of agreement in Tara's eyes.
"W-what happened? If you d-don't mind me asking?" Willow set down her mug, pushing her chair away and standing.
"I have to get some work done," she said, the uncertain hesitance of her first speech gone from her voice. "I'll set aside some clothes for you, so you can change."
"Thanks," Tara replied, twisting in her chair to watch Willow's exit. When the redhead was gone, Tara stood also. She put both cups in the sink, turned, and then turned back and rinsed them. Placing the cleaned mugs upside down on a cloth she'd laid beside the sink the previous day, Tara ran one finger around the bottom rim of the first one.
Then, breaking from her momentary reverie, she went to find the clothes Willow had promised.
"So you understand the rules."
"Of course I do."
"Just making sure, my friend. Any fuckups, and you're going right back where you came from. On second thought, you won't even make it back."
"I said I understood," the second man said coldly, the emphases on certain words or syllables barely coming through the dry monotone of his voice.
"Don't snap at me," the first man countered easily, holding up his hands in mocking amiability. "I'm the one who organized this whole thing."
"You're the one who paid for it, yes." The first man frowned, still looking friendly, but when he spoke, it was with a soft, humming menace, like that of a snake reassuring its prey.
"Now, don't be like that," he said. "I know we haven't always gotten along in the past, but you and my father go way back. Show a little respect."
"The relationship between your father and I was hardly one of respect." The first man sighed.
"Fine. Ignore the respect bullshit," he agreed, all pretenses of amicability dropping from his tone and body language. Now, his voice was flat and filled with jaded threat. "He paid you before, and I'm paying you now, so all you need to worry about is getting the job done." Then, just as quickly as they had vanished, the friendly mannerisms returned. "Besides, my man," he continued, clapping his companion on the back and ignoring the dangerous glint in the other's eye, "we're giving you that little bonus on the side. Remember?"
There was no reply, but only a small, thoughtful tilt of the mouth. The first man smiled cruelly, and bent towards his companion.
"That's right, Cole, old boy. You do this little favor for me, and we'll hand you good old Doctor R. on a silver platter."