Water splashed up from the puddles as Tara raced along the sidewalk, her sneakers pounding heavily on the wet pavement. Her breaths came in sharp, ragged gulps. Tara was not a runner; if she had found any room left in her frantic mind, she would have spared a moment to chastise herself for being woefully out of shape. Her heart beat irregularly, and a searing cramp was digging its way deeper into her side. She felt at once both too hot and too cold, and knew that the moment her legs stopped pumping, the incessant tingling in her abdomen would reassert itself as a pressing urge to urinate. She pushed on.
'It's your own fault, you know.' The thought appeared through the pain. 'This is the great Karmic pendulum swinging back in the other direction. It's retribution for asking Donny to lie to Papa. For sneaking out to a party, drinking alcohol, and kissing strangers. And for...well, that.' Tara skidded to a halt inches from a side street, very nearly slipping on the sidewalk and tumbling into the road just as a car flew through the green light into the intersection. She hopped impatiently from one foot to the other, while waiting for a break in the line of traffic.
The shift in luck didn't surprise her; through the trials of her life, Tara had come to conclusion that bad things always happened right when everything was going well. In fact, so certain was she of this that she had personified her troubles; she imagined them as bat-winged, hunchbacked little imps, which darted in and out of the shadows when you weren't looking. They carried clipboards and kept a running tally of your misdeeds; then, when they saw you experiencing a moment of bliss, they would make you pay. The critters would set into motion a series of events that would cause hurt, loss, and shame to descend upon you.
And things had been going well, tonight-amazingly well. Tara couldn't remember the last time she'd had so much fun. It had taken a little while, certainly; when she had first arrived at the party, she had been a nervous wreck, and after quickly being separated from Faith, she had clung to her thin strand of twine like it was the only thing anchoring her to this world. She had faked courage-a skill born of years of practice-long enough to familiarize herself with the house; new locations seemed slightly less daunting after she identified the layout and the flow of people, and once she discovered which rooms she could retreat to if anxiety overwhelmed her. Which is exactly what she had been doing when Willow appeared and changed everything.
Was it Willow's own nervousness that made her so comfortable to be around? When Tara had lain eyes on her for the first time that night, the redhead had looked like she was about to bolt for cover at the slightest movement. She had resembled a frightened wild animal, frozen in place, with taut shoulders and unblinking eyes. But the girl had been brave, taking tentative steps forward and even opening up a conversation with Tara. 'Even though you were basically ogling her the entire time,' the blonde admitted to herself. 'How very classy of you.' They had talked and laughed together. They had clicked. They had pooled their courage, feeding off of each other's, and agreed to play a game that neither of them would have dared to join, alone. And then they had kissed. 'Oh, Goddess, did we ever kiss,' Tara remembered, while darting across a space in traffic and continuing her frantic dash along the side of the road. But then the imps had done their job to a tee.
"One, two, three, four! I declare a thumb war!" Tara intoned.
"Five, six, seven, eight! Try to keep your thumb straight!" Although Willow attempted to deliver her line with a stony face, the corners of her mouth twitched, and giggles bubbled up to the surface. Tara tried to focus on their linked hands, where their dueling digits were poised to do combat, but instead her attention was stolen by the laughter on the redhead's lips. 'Her warm, peppermint flavored lips,' Tara's mind filled in. The ghost of their earlier kiss still lingered at her mouth, dancing upon her lips and sending phantom charges to the tip of her tongue. Despite the slow gulps of water she was downing, Tara felt parched. After her first drink had made her lightheaded, she had decided to abandon alcohol for the remainder of the night. Faith had offered her a second drink, which Tara had sipped once to appease her friend, but ultimately the blonde had passed it off to Willow, who discovered a passion for the peach flavored potable.
Now, Willow was on her fourth cup, and while it certainly was doing wonders for her insecurities, it rendered her a truly horrible thumb wrestler. Together, they chanted, "Nine, ten! Let's begin!" Tara, who had uninhibited fine motor skills, not to mention longer thumbs, had no trouble pinning Willow's wriggling digit beneath her own.
"Oh noes," Willow said, studying her thumb curiously. "I think it's tired." Her head lolled to the side, her eyes drifting closed, and her temple coming to rest against Tara's left arm, which was stretched across the back of the seat. It was a hideous, orange-red sofa with mix-matched cushions, and they shared it with an unidentified male partygoer, who was sprawled out across the majority of it, his forehead pressed firmly against the opposite armrest. The boy hadn't moved since they had claimed their perch, although his breathing sometimes gurgled into congested snoring.
After their game of spin the bottle, Faith had seen James and Julie out, then disappeared into the nether regions of the party; Andrew's time had been commandeered by his brother, who seemed eager to parade the boy before the Kappa Alpha brothers; and Cordelia and Buffy had wandered off with Riley in tow, claiming they were going to catch up with a few of Cordy's sorority sisters. The series of departures had once again left Tara and Willow sitting together in the bedroom, but despite the kiss-or perhaps because of it-neither girl had been able to retreat into her earlier comfort zone. Willow had polished off the remainder of her drink while Tara had excused herself for a cup of water, and when the blonde reappeared, she had hovered near the doorway. "Would you like to go downstairs, maybe, and, uh, l-listen to some music?"
The bustling activity of the party had been a welcome relief after the hesitant silence of the upstairs bedroom. The girls had been lucky to find an open seat, their slumbering couch companion notwithstanding, and they had gratefully settled into the unsightly upholstery. They hadn't talked much, just a brief comment here and there, whispered at close range into an ear to ensure delivery despite the raucous background noise. Mostly, they had watched the party, occasionally stealing glances at each other, and letting the steady pounding beat of the music wash over them. Tara's suggestion to thumb wrestle had been partly to break the silence between the two, and partly because it had been killing her to have the redhead sitting so closely, yet to not be touching her.
"Oz wrote this one," Willow murmured, her breath trickling over the inside of Tara's elbow.
"This song." The girl's eyes fluttered open and found Tara's crystal blue irises mere inches away; the blonde was leaning closer to better hear Willow's words. "He wrote this one; I remember when he was working on it."
Tara blinked. "Oh, r-right." She peered across the room, which was teeming with students, but couldn't see the band through the sea of bodies. "They're really good," she remarked. "I-I like her voice a lot. You said they used to have a-a guy singer?" A playful expression crossed her face.
"Yeah," Willow nodded. "His name was Devon. Why? What's so funny?"
"N-nothing," Tara giggled. "I just, uh, have trouble imagining a guy singing this, is all."
Willow knit her brow and let the husky, drawn out lyrics register. "Oh...yeah, they are kind of, uh, racy, huh? It's a new song, though. Oz says they've been spending a lot of time on new ones; they're really taking it seriously."
"Where does he find time for work, attending the University, having a girlfriend, and playing in a band?" asked Tara, still craning her neck in an attempt to see the musicians.
"Well, he only works part time," Willow explained, "and honestly, he doesn't take all that many credits at school-just the bare minimum required to be considered a full-time student." She frowned, her gaze travelling down to the sofa. "And the rest of band time...I guess it kind of comes out of girlfriend time," she admitted.
Tara gave the girl a puzzled look. "You're kidding." At Willow's resigned shrug, the blonde shook her head. "He really needs to get his priorities straight."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I just...I don't know, it seems like..." Tara paused, considering her words. "I don't think there's m-much that's more important than, uh, having somebody, you know? Somebody special?"
Willow remained quiet until the blonde glanced at her for a reaction, when she finally asked, "Do you-um, did you leave somebody behind? When you moved here, I mean?"
Tara drew a slow breath. "No," she admitted, "just a garden."
Shifting slightly on the sofa, Willow tucked her knees up below her chin and nestled her cheek into the nook of Tara's elbow, her lashes sweeping downward over the skin. The bunched up sleeve of the blonde's soft marled cardigan tickled the tip of her nose. "I'll bet it was a really beautiful garden, though," she whispered.
"It really was," Tara sighed, closing her eyes as well.
Tara was abruptly shaken awake ten minutes later by an agitated Andrew.
"I need help," he panted.
"Huh? W-what happened?" Tara tried to sit up too quickly, not realizing that Willow was still napping on her arm, and the redhead started, blinking rapidly. Pins and needles shot from the blonde's fingers to her shoulder.
"Tucker says I've gotta get girls to play I Never, or else he'll tell all the KA guys I have Ewok sheets."
Tara peered at the boy, rubbing her shoulder briskly. "Do you have Ewok sheets?" she asked.
"Ew! No way!" Andrew adamantly denied.
"He's got Boba Fett sheets," Willow recalled the detail from the handful of times she'd visited the boy's room.
"Bubba who?" Tara asked confusedly.
"Oh, he's so cool," Andrew enthused. "But that's not the point. You guys have got to help me!"
"Why is that?" Tara questioned. She wasn't so sure she should get involved in another drinking game. She hadn't been keeping track, but she was fairly sure Willow had already had plenty to drink, as well. On the other hand, from the stories she'd heard of the game, there wasn't much chance that she would have to drink very often, and-unless her impression of the girl was wildly off-neither would Willow.
"This is important!" Andrew insisted. "It's about familial rivalry, you know? It's about standing tall and proud against an older sibling!"
Tara grinned. "I am the older sibling," she reminded him.
Andrew looked to Willow for help, but she merely shrugged apologetically. "Only child."
"Aw, man. You guys are really going to make me grovel?" The boy looked at them with pleading eyes. "Come on, I'll owe you both a huge favor?"
'Just tell him you don't think it's a good idea,' Tara decided. 'Say you're only drinking water, that Willow's tired, that-' She glanced at Willow, and was surprised to see a look of curiosity and mischief lighting up her eyes. 'Uh oh...'
There were seven of them sitting around the table. Besides Willow and Andrew, none of the other players were familiar to Tara, although she could make an educated guess as to which one was Tucker; not only did he have features similar to his brother's, but he wore a white tee shirt sporting a picture of Friar Tuck, underneath which the phrase 'Tuck You' had been written in Sharpie marker. She noticed with dismay that aside from Willow and herself, only one other girl was present. Tara scooted her chair closer to Willow's, making room for Andrew at her right.
"I never smoked pot," the unfamiliar girl declared, immediately following her statement with a long draft of beer. Tucker and the other two Kappa Alpha brothers took swigs, as well, after clinking their bottles together in a celebratory toast.
"You, too, baby brother," Tucker urged, nudging Andrew's plastic cup toward the boy. The bright blue drink sloshed dangerously close to the lip of the container.
"No, way," Andrew protested. "That doesn't count. It was only-"
"Drink up!" his brother insisted.
"Fine," the boy huffed, "but I'm gonna get you back for this. Mark my words." Still grumbling, Andrew lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip, then swirled the citrus flavored liquid around his tongue before swallowing it. "I never caused widespread panic at Family Weekend," he fired back.
"Ooo!" the frat boys called out in a chorus, clapping their hands in appreciation at the boy's vengeance round. They hooted and hollered, cheering Tucker on as the young man proudly downed half of his beer in a single gulp.
All eyes turned to Tara, and she shrank back into her chair. "Uh...I n-never, um...shoplifted?" she said meekly. Curiously she watched Willow, but the redhead's hand remained in her lap, never straying to her cup. Tara didn't even notice if anyone else had taken a drink; she was just happy to have her turn be over.
"I never went streaking!" Willow piped. Her cheeks were red, but she was laughing. The sight relaxed Tara, somewhat.
"Down the hatch, Dave!" one of the brothers called out. Dave, the only victim of the round, tilted his head back and pumped his fists in the air, cursing the heavens, before draining the rest of his drink. He belched loudly.
It was Tucker's turn, and he grinned wickedly at his younger brother. "I never, ever," he drew the words out for dramatic effect, "so much as kissed a girl." He took a drink and leaned back in his seat, arms crossed, with a smug, self-satisfied look on his face.
Willow and Tara took tentative sips, locking gazes over their rims of their drinks. When Andrew proudly took a gulp, Tucker laughed. "You liar!" he accused.
"Nuh uh, am not," Andrew retorted.
"Hah! No way," Tucker scoffed. "I don't believe it for a second."
"Believe it," Tara asserted, jumping to her friend's defense. "And he's a fantastic kisser, too," she added, stifling a fit of giggles when Andrew visibly puffed up and his brother shook his head in amazed disbelief.
Recognizing what Tara was up to, Willow added her voice to the mix. "Yup, one of the best," she maintained. Under the table, she felt Tara's hand slip into her own, giving a squeeze of appreciation before releasing the grip. Tucker's eyes shot to the redhead, his jaw dropping. Willow avoided his gaze by taking another quick pull on her peachy beverage. As she set the cup back down on the table, her hands felt weightless.
"I never had phone sex," Dave said, adding, "sadly."
Willow's eyes nearly popped out of her skull, and her slouched posture shot upright. 'Oh my god, I can't-is anybody else-' When three of the others reached for their drinks, Willow sneaked a hand out for her own. She swirled the fizzy liquid around the bottom of her cup before tipping it back and letting it slide into her mouth. Her tongue swam in the last of the sweet, tingly syrup before gulping it down. She exhaled, her head buzzing, feeling like she was spinning in dizzying circles.
Tara gnawed at her lower lip as the redhead set her empty cup down on the table, carefully lining it up flush with the edge of one of the wooden slats. 'I have her phone number,' Tara recalled, the thought springing up before she had a chance to censor it. 'Wait, who did she have-was it with Oz?' Her stomach churned uneasily. 'They are a couple, you know. As much as you might want to, it's not something you can just ignore. You're toeing the line, already; be careful.'
From somewhere across the table, a voice stated, "I never masturbated at work."
The table fell silent. Tara could almost hear her heart pushing blood into her arteries. At first nobody moved. Slowly, Tucker's fingers crept across the table and eased around his bottle, lifting it to his mouth in red-faced shame.
"Ew!" the girl across the table blurted, her features twisted in disgust. "That's nasty!" She glared at the young man and tossed a bottle cap in his direction, which bounced off his hand and fell to the floor.
'This was a terrible, terrible idea,' Tara decided. When she reached out for her red plastic cup, she couldn't help but feel that it wasn't her hand; it felt disconnected, foreign. She could hardly taste the sour bite of the liquid that spilled past her lips. Her gaze followed her drink to the table, where it stayed while her cheeks burned. When she finally summoned the courage to glance to her left, she found Willow's eyes on her. The girl's lips were parted slightly, and her expression was unreadable, but her stare didn't waver. Tara shifted uncomfortably in her seat and lowered her head, looking down at her lap.
"Tara!" Andrew gasped. "You mean-oh, no, no. It was a while ago, right? I mean, it couldn't have been at...pleasepleaseplease tell me it wasn't at..."
Tara said nothing.
"Aw, man!" the boy concluded.
Play had gone around the table and returned to the girl who had started the game off. "I never...uh..."
"Come on, Lil, let's hear it," Dave urged.
"I'm trying to think of a good one!" Lil snapped.
"How about, 'I never owned a vibrator shaped like a tiny pink elephant's head?'" Buffy suggested, sauntering over to the table. Behind her, Riley guffawed.
All color drained from Willow's face. "Would you excuse me, please?" she spoke evenly, pushing her chair away from the table and rising unsteadily to her feet. She balanced herself with her hand on the back of her chair, and turned to address her best friend. Her mouth opened to speak, but instead she lunged forward, without warning. Buffy squeaked out a startled yelp and almost tumbled backward over a chair. Quickly regaining her balance, she danced out of reach, avoiding the advancing redhead as she weaved through the crowd. They made a circuit of the room, Buffy picking her way easily around the human obstacles, and Willow wobbling dangerously with every step. When the blonde feinted and reversed her trajectory, Willow stumbled, tipping too far to one side. Her hands instinctively flew up to cushion her impact, but then Tara was catching her. Steadying her. Holding her. Willow's sense of balance continued its laps around the room, and she had to clench her eyes shut to suppress a bout of vertigo.
"I got you." Whispers. "Easy, sweetie." Tara cooed soothingly to Willow as she helped the reeling redhead over to the sofa, where a student was kind enough to offer up his seat. Buffy stepped forward to help, but Tara shot her a look that was easy to read: 'back off.' She eased backward onto the couch, drawing Willow down with her and lowering her gently to the cushion. Fluffing a pillow, Tara lifted Willow's birdlike frame just enough to slide the cushioning beneath it. A plaintive moan escaped the redhead's lips, her mental landscape tilting and spinning queasily. All Tara could do was anchor the girl with her touch; she brushed her fingers across Willow's moist forehead and narrow chin, not caring that they were becoming smeared with makeup.
Buffy hovered nervously nearby, fretting over her role in hastening her best friend's deteriorating condition. "Can I do anything? How can I help?"
Riley rested a reassuring hand on her arm. "Come on, let's her some water," he suggested, knowing she'd feel less guilty if she had a task to perform. Buffy nodded listlessly and followed him toward the kitchen, glancing back at her friend every few steps.
When Faith spied Tara sitting on the sofa, she approached quietly. The waitress was leaning against Willow, cupping the girl's cheek in the palm of her hand. The redhead appeared to have slipped into peaceful oblivion, her limp form draped over a pillow that was tucked against the sofa's armrest. Tara's eyes were closed, but every few seconds her eyelids would twitch, and her thumb would sweep a gentle caress across the soft hairs beside Willow's ear. They looked so darned cute that Faith wished she didn't have to wake her friend.
"Hey, T," she whispered.
Tara's lashes fluttered.
"Tara," Faith said, a bit more forcefully.
"Mm?" The blonde blinked a few times before focusing on her friend. "Faith? Oh, hey."
Tara pulled her hand away from Willow's face to cover an ear-popping yawn. She smiled sheepishly.
"Anyway," Faith remembered, "your little bro called a little bit ago. Said to tell you that your ol' man was home, and that he was headin' to bed."
Tara was suddenly wide awake. "What? W-when did he call?"
"I don't know, maybe ten minutes ago?" Faith shrugged, crouching down by the couch. "I told him I didn't know where you were right at the moment, but I'd let you know." She flipped open her cell phone and scanned through the call log. "Yeah, like twelve minutes ago," she verified.
Tara struggled against inertia and rose shakily. "Oh my-I've got to..." She stood too quickly, and immediately sat back down on the sofa, waiting for the darkness to fade from the periphery of her vision. "I've g-got to go, right away," she stammered, teetering to her feet once again. "Could you s-stay with Willow until Buffy gets back?"
"Yeah, I can watch over Red. But, T, wait a sec and I'll-" Faith called, but already the blonde had rushed toward the front door, pausing only to collect her coat and bag from the hallway closet.
Buffy appeared a few seconds later, carrying several cups of water. "What was that all about?" she inquired.
"T had to run," Faith grimaced, looking at the door.
"That does kind of seem to be her M.O.," Buffy said. "Should I go after her?"
Faith shook her head. "Nah, I got it; you're on drunk duty." With that, she hauled herself to her feet and took off after her friend.
Cars zipped by on the road beside Tara, their tires spraying a fine mist into the air. Her legs felt like Jell-o; it was getting harder to put one foot in front of the other. 'Just a few more blocks,' her mind demanded, but her muscles protested every step. She slowed to an agonizing trot, the cramp in her side stinging so sharply it caused tears to well up in her eyes. Behind her, heavy footsteps neared; she could hear the squeaking sound of boots impacting wet pavement.
"T, would you hold up for a sec?" Faith panted. "Jesus, I had no idea you could run so fast." She doubled over, gasping, and spit thick ropes of saliva onto the ground.
"I'm sorry, Faith, I really am. But I've got to get home, right now."
"You look like you're about to keel over," Faith pointed out, straightening and forcing her lungs to take steady breaths around her words. "Will you at least let me make sure you get there in one piece?"
"It's just two more blocks. I appreciate your concern, really, but I'll be fine." Tara began jogging again, and Faith kept pace with her.
"You're just about the most stubborn person I've ever met, you know that?"
Tara frowned. "I could say the same of you," she rasped.
When they finally reached her apartment building, Tara marched up to the door and pulled her keys from her coat pocket. She unlocked and opened the door hastily, wedging her foot in front of the jamb. Regarding Faith, she said, "Thanks. I'm sorry for being such a brat. I wish-I-" The words didn't come.
"No explanation needed," Faith assured her. "Just...don't bolt like that. It freaks people out, you know? We're your friends; any of us would see you home safely."
Tara grinned. "And who's going to see you home safely?" she asked.
Faith rolled her eyes. "I'm going to wait until the sun is up, then call for a police escort to bring me the three blocks to my place," she replied sarcastically. "Anyway, go on up, don't let me keep you. Shoo."
Tara made one more stop before climbing the stairs to her apartment; using the smallest key on the ring, she opened one of the narrow mailboxes that lined one wall of the stairwell landing, and retrieved a plastic shopping bag from it. Carefully locking the box behind her, she took the remaining stairs two at a time. With a steadying breath, Tara unlocked her apartment door and stepped inside.