Author: Chris Cook
Five minutes later Willow waited by the school's main doors, distracting herself by watching the last few students hanging around the building's front lawn. One hand was idly playing with the hem of her shirt, though she hadn't yet realised this, or even that she had untucked that side of her shirt at all.
'She said yes!' she grinned to herself, 'She said yes, she said yes... yay for yesses. Yesses make everything better. Well, not everything, strictly speaking, but those things that involve me asking Tara out for coffee. As opposed to, say, "Hey, is that nuclear reactor safety gauge above the red line?", that's be no good if the answer was 'yes'. 'Cause what do I know about fixing a reactor? Nothing, that's what. Well, I know dropping the cadmium rods is a good idea if the reaction is getting out of hand, but you've got to figure the reactor maintenance-type people already tried that and it didn't work, if they've exhausted their options so far as to be asking visiting high school teachers for advice-"
"Why are we letting him just go on like that?" Xander asked Anya and Buffy, as Giles continued to talk breezily to himself.
"With luck he'll wear himself out before she shows up," Buffy replied.
'-not like it'd be a class field trip, there's not even any reactors in this state, and even if we got the budget for interstate field trips they wouldn't let school field trips go into the bits of the facility where they deal with unexpected meltdowns, they probably have shiny chrome control centres for that sort of stuff, not the kind of place you want someone like Natalie Mercer in seventh grade, or - oh goddess, Tristan Burke, he'd probably trip over the power cord to the main console or something. They must have back-ups, though? Oh face it, he's a klutz, he'd trip over all the cables all at once-"
"Ready?" Tara asked from behind Willow.
"We have to say something impressive right now!" Giles yelled, making a dive for his notebooks.
"Our shirt's untucked! How did that happen!?" Anya wailed.
"Did we check ourselves in a mirror?" Buffy countered. "Is our hair okay? Did we clean our nails after all that messing around with soil samples?"
"I'll handle it!" Xander declared, taking control of the voice, while swinging the screen around so he could see it. "Ooh, pretty smile..."
"...smile..." Willow replied, trying to sort her thoughts out. "I mean, yes! Hello, and yes, I'm ready."
"Smile?" Tara asked.
"You're smiling," Willow pointed out, "smiling, ergo happy, which is a good thing... 'cause hey, I wouldn't want to think going for a coffee with me is a bad thing, that'd be a bit of a blow to the old self-esteem, you see what I mean... I don't know what I mean. You startled me," she finished, with a mock frown.
"I did," Tara admitted, "not on purpose..." She chuckled slightly. "I don't think I've ever seen someone as deep in thought as you were."
"Yep, my thoughts," Willow nodded, her tone unmistakeably sarcastic, "gotta love 'em."
"Who said that?" Giles, Xander, Anya and Buffy all glared at each other, each concealing a guilty start behind a look of indignation.
"Let's go get coffee," Tara said, "you can tell me some of them, maybe I will."
"Uh-huh..." Willow said, slightly baffled.
"Will what?" Xander asked.
"What was she saying before?" Anya added.
"What were we saying before?" Buffy countered.
"'Gotta love 'em'," Giles replied, clearly unhappy with the abbreviations.
"Love... thoughts?" Buffy frowned. "Us? Did she just hint what I thought she just hinted?"
"She loves us!" Anya jumped for joy.
"She might," Buffy corrected, "conceivably, hypothetically, in a not very serious joking-around sense-"
"She loves us!" Anya barked sharply.
"Jeez Ahn," Xander said gently, "ego much?"
"That's what I'm here for," she replied calmly.
"Which pretty much explains what I'm here for," Buffy added quietly.
"Indeed," Giles said, "but if I may suggest a course of action, we've been grinning in a rather silly fashion for several seconds now, so saying something might be in order?"
"Oh!" Willow said, realisation dawning. "Oh, well... thanks! Yep... well sure, lots of conversation over coffee, I promise - you want my thoughts, you got 'em."
"Conversation over coffee sounds good," Tara smiled, "lead the way."
"Soitanly," Willow joked in a fake Mobster accent, for no good reason, "I just have to..." she waved a folder stuffed full of papers vaguely, then a worried frown crossed her face.
"Oh god, the car," Buffy moaned.
"What? It's a car, what's the big deal?" Xander asked.
"It's not just a car," Buffy protested, "it's a SmartCar, it looks-"
"Cute," Anya insisted.
"Eccentric," Buffy countered, "what if she-"
"She'll love it!" Anya insisted. "This is a woman who appreciates individuality, and says 'no' in no uncertain terms to the forces of soul-crushing conformism. She'll love the car."
"...just have to put these in my car," Willow finished, glancing apologetically at Tara as she took a few steps towards the car park.
"Of course," Tara nodded, following. Willow resisted the temptation to look over her shoulder as she opened her car with the remote on the keys and quickly dumped the folders on the passenger seat. Steeling herself, she turned around.
"I can't bear to look," Giles said, covering his eyes.
"We collectively don't want to hear whining from you right now!" Anya snapped. Buffy shook her head at the two, and remained silent.
"I'm looking," Xander reported from the periscope.
"Is she smiling?" Buffy asked. "Is it a happy smile, or a gee-what-a-dumb-car smile? Please don't tell me we blew our chances by having a dumb car-"
"It's not dumb-" Anya interrupted.
"Xander, is she smiling?!" Buffy demanded. Xander shrugged.
"Look at her face!" Buffy, Anya and Giles said in unison. Xander cringed and adjusted the periscope.
"Looks good," he said warily.
"So..." Willow said, returning to Tara's side.
"Nice car," Tara said. Willow bit her lip and ventured a sidelong glance as they fell into step together.
"Is that 'nice' meaning 'nice', or 'nice' meaning 'eccentric but I'm being diplomatic, and really just mentioning it as a way of getting the conversation going'?" she asked, all in one breath.
"Nice as in nice," Tara laughed. "Besides, who said there's anything wrong with being eccentric? I like eccentric."
"Ha!" Anya crowed.
"I am!" Willow grinned. "I mean, me too - I like eccentric. I am eccentric, in fact, and I like it. Which is good, because otherwise, I'd have issues, you know?" Tara laughed again.
Buffy studied two of an array of mercury-filled tubes, somewhat resembling thermometers, among the clutter of Willow's mind. The one marked 'embarrassment from babbling' wavered around half-way up, while on another panel one with a hastily-handwritten sign declaring it 'giddy feelings from Tara's laugh' had broken its top and was bubbling silver liquid down the wall.
"Survey says: keep babbling," Buffy said over her shoulder.
Willow and Tara sat side by side on one of the Caffeine Drip's comfy, slightly-worn sofas and sipped their mochas. In unison they closed their eyes, leaned back a fraction, took a slow, quiet breath, swallowed, and sighed. Willow peeked at Tara, who peeked at Willow, and they giggled at each other.
"Was it good for you too?" Willow asked.
"You can accuse me of being insatiable," Tara smiled, blushing faintly, "but I'm in the mood for another sip."
"Beats rolling over and going to sleep," Willow agreed. They sipped, leaned, swallowed, and sighed again.
"You did it deliberately that time," Tara said.
"I admit nothing," Willow replied airily.
"Did we do it deliberately?" Giles asked Xander, while Anya and Buffy took turns with the microphone.
"Only the second time," Xander said. "It seemed funny... trust me, we can't go wrong if we're making her laugh. I know whereof I speak."
"Unless she happens to be laughing at us, choking on our coffee," Giles warned darkly, glancing at the girls.
"Buff! Ahn!" Xander called. "Drink then talk! Not simultaneous!"
"More babble, do you think?" Giles wondered.
"I'm fine," Willow chuckled, taking a deep breath. "My lungs heard from my stomach how good the coffee was, and wanted to try some for themselves - you know how they get, pesky lungs, all pushy just because they're a major organ. I mean," she went on, as Tara giggled, "if your big toe, for instance, wanted some coffee, I bet the stomach would just be 'eh, whatever, later', and forget all about it. Poor big toe, it must be tough being an appendage. All the work, none of the glory. Except opposable thumbs, they're like the appendage diva, getting all the credit for all of human civilisation. I bet the other fingers are jealous, it's not like a thumb on its own could do anything, it needs fingers to grip against..."
"Sweet Jesus, enough is enough!" Xander protested.
"...and it's been quite a while since I shut up, huh?" Willow finished.
"I didn't want to stop a good thing," Tara smiled. "Do your thoughts always rush around like that?"
"Damn metaphorical imagery," Xander complained, looking down to find himself clad in a track athlete's shorts - very tight shorts - and singlet - likewise. He looked up to see Anya similarly attired.
"Mmm-mmm," he murmured, grinning. He glanced at Buffy.
"Oh yeah," he nodded approvingly. A disgruntled sigh caught his attention, and he turned to look at Giles.
"Oh yeah," Willow nodded, putting the sudden twitch in her leg down to having been standing up in class all day. "You know how people say they'd lose their head if it wasn't nailed on? Mine needed extra nails to keep it down." She paused. "And thinking of Frankenstein's monster now, not such a great image."
"I'm surprised your hair is still its original colour," Tara quipped. "It seems like it should have left its original spectrum."
"I could dye my hair and claim it blue-shifted over night," Willow agreed with a laugh. "Though, it'd be relative - I mean, for example, blue shifts only occur in an object moving away from the observer, so you, for instance, would see a red shift, possibly into infra-red. Being that my thoughts are directed at you. Get it?" she asked hopefully. Tara laughed out loud and nodded.
"Do you make your classes this much fun?" she asked, catching her breath. Willow shrugged modestly.
"I'd like to think so, but I think what teachers think is fun will never correspond to what students think is fun - it's a fundamental law of the universe, or something. I could try dyeing my hair blue and see what they think?"
"I like your hair the way it is," Tara said, venturing a winsome smile, which as far as Willow was concerned, won hands down.
"Then red it stays," she agreed. "I don't think blue hair works anyway, except in cartoons."
"Oh god, don't let him start up about the cartoons," Buffy moaned in dismay, as Xander pulled up an armchair by the microphone and got ready to prose at length.
"True," Tara nodded sagely, "and you're not quite tall enough to be Zentraedi."
"What did she say?" Anya asked, as Xander's eyes lit up.
"You're kidding - you watched Robotech too?" Willow asked.
"Saturday morning cartoons were bonding time for my brother and I," Tara said. "Though to tell the truth, I preferred Transformers."
"On the positive side," Giles noted, as he, Anya and Buffy sat around the desk, "we appear to have things in common with the lady in question, which is unarguably a good thing. On the negative," he shot at glare at Xander, who was talking a mile a minute, "we may be here for days."
"But Jetfire was imported from the Robotech line anyway," he went on, unperturbed. "Anyway it's bases of operations that we should be looking at, and the SDF-1 would turn Metroplex into scrap metal..."
"Why the heck is it that he always takes over when we discuss this sort of thing?" Buffy wondered. "I've checked our endorphin levels, I know for a fact Robotech does not turn us on... how come Libido goes nuts about it?"
"Boys with toys," Anya shrugged.
"Technically he's not a boy," Buffy pointed out. "We're all a girl, remember? Even you," she added to Giles, and then grimaced at the thought.
"So?" Anya repeated her shrug, with an extra touch of dismissive. "Technically we're not talking about toys - dad never bought us that robot plane, or whatever it was-"
"VF-1S Valkyrie," Xander said over his shoulder, before turning back to the conversation he was conducting for Willow and continuing: "Sure it couldn't take Unicron, but it's hardly fair to compare a capital ship to a god..."
"See?!" Buffy protested. "Two conversations at once! Normally he can't even think about two body parts at once - how the hell is he doing that?!?"
"Boys with toys," Anya said, giving one more shrug for the road.
As the afternoon moved toward evening the conversation moved on, through work (Giles, with a side of Anya), hobbies (mainly Anya, with Buffy keeping Xander from saying anything risqué), and somehow on to most embarrassing high school moments (Buffy's fifteen minutes of fame). Giles heaved a sigh of relief and ticked off 'gay' on his list of 'necessary qualities for furthering our relationship' when Tara mentioned her coming out as one of hers, while Xander did a happy dance perilously close to the levers controlling Willow's legs, almost causing her to happy dance along.
"Sorry," she said, having nearly overbalanced the teacup balanced on her knees, "I was just having a spaz moment there. Promise not to tell my students?"
"If you promise not to tell mine the story I just told you," Tara grinned, with shyness and flirtation meeting on her face at a point marked 'adorable'.
"Your amateur theatre secrets are safe with me," Willow promised. "Though, I must say, I bet you made a great songbird."
"You're not just saying that because it involved a one-piece swimsuit and a pair of tights as my entire costume?" Tara teased.
"Um," Willow blushed.
"Various sounds of hesitation," Giles, Anya, Buffy and Xander intoned.
"Sorry," Tara dropped her gaze and let her hair fall across her face. "Just teasing... I think all this school reminiscing has mentally taken a few years off me, I couldn't help myself..."
"Well..." Willow said, stalling while she thought of what to say next.
"Follow up!" Anya insisted. "That was flirting, follow it up! Flirt back!"
"We don't want to appear crude," Giles cautioned. "Just because she mentioned a certain costume-"
"Aaaaaaugh," Xander burbled happily.
"You're drooling on the blush regulator!" Buffy pointed out. "Our face is going critical."
"-it doesn't necessarily follow that her humorous reference was directed towards its, ah, visually appealing qualities - she may have simply been making a joke at her expense, indicating the embarrassment she felt while wearing it-"
"What if we were to reassure her that it's the sexiest thought we'd ever had?" Xander offered.
"No!" Buffy silenced him. "We're not doing anything that results in her running away and filing sexual harassment charges at work in the morning!"
"We have to flirt back somehow!" Anya insisted. "If we just sit here dumbly she'll get discouraged-"
"Oh- I didn't realise how late it had gotten," Tara said, having glanced idly at her watch. "I should... not that I'm trying to get out of here, but I haven't got anything ready for dinner. Come to think of it, I haven't bought anything for dinner yet, I'm still unpacking and living off take-out." She flashed Willow a shy smile.
"Now she's leaving!" Giles, Anya and Buffy shouted accusingly at each other. Unseen, Xander scooped up the microphone.
"If you don't have plans," Willow suggested, "and if you're not tired of my company... I know a place? I wasn't really looking forward to a home-cooked meal anyway, which, if you knew my cooking, you'd understand. Can I interest you?"
Tara blinked in surprise, then hid behind her hair again for a moment.
"I-I'd have to go back to my apartment," she said. "I should change, and I've got some laundry to put in the machine... but," she looked up, and gave a hopeful smile, "if you'd like to pick me up around eight...?"
"Xander," Buffy said, looking at Willow's libido with new respect.
"That was..." Anya chimed in.
"...inspired," Giles finished.
"I have my moments," Xander said modestly, leaning over and pushing the 'agree' button on Willow's preset responses.
"No problem at all," Willow smiled. "Eight o'clock it is."
"Then you can definitely interest me," Tara agreed.
"Woo-hoo!" Anya, Xander and Buffy chorused. Anya then glared at Giles and elbowed him in the stomach.
"Say 'woo-hoo'!" she ordered.
"It's not that I don't share the sentiment," he protested plaintively, "I simply choose not to express it in such an... undignified manner..." He looked around, and shrunk under the withering glare of the rest of Willow's psyche.
"Oh very well," he muttered with poor grace. "Woo-hoo."
Forty minutes later Willow stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom, rapidly whirling the items of clothing laid out on the bed over her body and checking herself. She studied a thin red sweater for a moment, then discarded in favour of a black spaghetti-strap top, which she seemed satisfied with for all of one and a half seconds, before dropping it and returning to the wardrobe to further empty it.
"Dammit why can I never decide what to wear?" she griped.
"We've got good legs, why not tight pants?" Anya demanded.
"Why not a skirt?" Xander countered. "What's with the covering of the legs, if they're so good?"
"We're having dinner, not giving a lap-dance," Buffy frowned.
"Great work," Anya sniped at Buffy. "As if we weren't distracted enough already."
"Perhaps something more formal?" Giles ventured.
"What's wrong with the sweater?" Buffy whined. "It's cute!"
"Like you said, we're having dinner," Anya argued. "Not, in this case, trying to get ourselves adopted from the pound. Cute is-"
"Whoa, what?" Xander blinked, rejoining the debate. "What's wrong with being adopted? I'm all for us being adopted by Tara."
"I think they do checks for mental instability before they give you a pet," Buffy huffed.
"There's nothing wrong with Tara," Giles said, confused.
"I meant us!" Buffy shot back.
"People!" Anya shouted. "Focus! We're not a pet, and we're not trying to get Tara to take us home and put a collar on us! Now could we just-" She broke off as Xander lost consciousness and collapsed, with an enormous grin on his face.
"Great work," Buffy said, false-chirpily. "As if we weren't distracted enough already."
Willow finally arrived at Tara's building, in grey jeans and a long-sleeved green shirt that had been the only survivors of a detailed process of elimination, and checked her watch.
"Two minutes early," she muttered.
"You're insane with this time thing," Buffy pointed out.
"We said eight o'clock, so we'll arrive at eight o'clock," Giles insisted calmly, fending her away from the levers for Willow's hands.
After two minutes of pacing and watch-checking, Willow finally gave herself the go-ahead to push the buzzer, and pushed it. It was an old brick building, two stories comprising four apartments in total, and there wasn't an intercom that Willow could spot. She waited patiently, forcing her face into a casual smile, as a light came on in the stairwell vaguely visible behind the door's frosted glass, and footsteps descended.
"Hi," she said as the door opened, hoping not to sound too cheerful, to the point of undue eagerness. "Are you rehuh muh guh?"
Tara, leaning casually against the doorframe, dressed in a long, flowing blue skirt that was tight in all the right places around her thighs and hips, and a loose sleeveless navy top, raised both eyebrows in confusion.
Buffy whirled around in shock.
"Xander!" she shouted. "You're drooling on our vocal cords!"
"Muh huh?" he asked. "Oh... right. Sorry."
"I mean, are you ready to go?" Willow corrected herself. "There's no hurry, I can wait..."
"No," Tara shook her head, resuming her smile. "No need, I'm ready." A noise from behind her startled her, and she glanced over her shoulder.
"Oh," she grinned, turning back to Willow, "They're redecorating the apartment opposite me upstairs... some couch dodging may be required." She and Willow moved into the corner out of the way as a man and a teenage boy came lumbering down the stairs, carrying a heavy sofa between them, and staggered through the narrow doorway.
"Sorry we're at it so late," the man said in passing.
"No problem," Tara said with a polite smile. Willow offered a smile as well, then turned back to Tara to say something, which she completely forgot.
"Oh my god!" Anya exclaimed. "She... us... confined space! We're this close to her!"
"We can smell her perfume," Buffy said dreamily.
"Xander's drooling again," Giles warned.
"That's okay, just keep him away from anything vital," Anya waved a hand vaguely at him.
"So..." Tara shrugged, taking a deep breath. She and Willow were standing very close in the wake of the couch's passage, and neither was moving away.
"Uh, yeah..." Willow nodded slowly. "The car's outside... I guess, we should... go?"
"Yeah," Tara agreed, her gaze flickering up and down between Willow's eyes and her lips.
"Um, you look... good, by the way," Willow ventured. "Very..." she trailed off.
"Uh-huh," Tara said, "you too... I... like that top... Suits you..."
"Stand aside," Xander declared.
"Xander what are you doing?" Buffy asked, as he reached for a button marked 'peck on cheek'.
"We are getting signals," he said definitively. "They are strong signals, and we are responding. Stand back!" Nervous emergency lights flashed on as Xander picked up a mallet, broke the glass over the button, and pressed it.
Tara blinked as Willow leaned forward the fraction that was required and brushed her lips against her cheek. It was over as quick as that - Willow was leaning away again, not quite able to meet her eyes, before she had even realised what had happened. Tara put a hand on her cheek, where she felt the memory of Willow's lips, and stared at her, mouth hanging open in surprise.
"I-I'm sorry," Willow stammered. "I thought... that was totally wrong, I'm so sorry I don't know what happened, I'll go, if you want, I didn't mean anything and I promise I'll-"
The inside of Tara's mind had the appearance of a Renaissance artisan's workshop - stone walls, polished hardwood floor, Tuscan sunlight streaming in through shuttered windows, oil lamps here and there, and every surface piled high with manuscripts, old leather-bound books, sketches, spare canvasses, paintings, and models of wood, string and cloth.
From behind an easel bearing a portrait of Willow, Tara's libido crept out, hefted a heavy illuminated manuscript above her, and smacked her pessimistic self-analysis over the head with it.
"Want? Take. Have," she said, dropping the book on a table as her rival collapsed dazed to the floor.
"-completely my fault, and you have every right to be upset-"
Tara leaned forward, cupped Willow's face in her hands, and kissed her babbling mouth firmly. Willow's eyes went wide as saucers, then slowly closed as the kiss lingered on, as Tara, while her mouth remained closed for now, made no secret of the pleasure it gave her to savour Willow's lips.
The Jules-Verne-mission-control and the artist's studio merged together in a bewildering mix of styles, leaving the components of Willow and Tara's psyches staring at each other across the meld between their two worlds.
"Hi," Tara's libido said, stepping forward, pointing to herself. "Faith, Larry, Jenny Calendar," she gestured to the others around herself, "and the one taking a time-out is Donnie. We're Tara."
"We're Willow," Buffy replied, approaching the newcomers. "Nice to meet you."