"Well, I was just on my way out, but if you're not in a hurry to go anywhere," Donnie said pointedly, flashing a quick grin at Tara, "you're more'n welcome to come along and talk."
"Sure, yeah... that would be fine."
"Great! I just need to run upstairs and change clothes right quick," Donnie said, picking at his mop-soaked shirt. "Seems my sister here thought I could use a bath."
Donnie took the stairs two at a time, leaving Willow and Tara to nervously contemplate the other. Both stood silent for several long moments. Tara looked at the redhead, dressed in the same traveling outfit she'd first seen, and her stomach flipped and tightened.
"Are you leaving?" Tara began, then immediately cringed at the harsh ring of the question.
"There was a bit of an accident, so I'll be around a little longer than expected," Willow explained, her own brow knitting. 'Does she want me to leave?' the redhead thought.
"OH! You weren't h-hurt, were you?"
Willow looked up to see the blonde take a hesitant step forward, her hands wringing and her eyes creased in concern. The small doubt that had flashed through Willow's brain disappeared, and she smiled warmly.
"No, I'm fine. It's my buckboard... someone busted the axle on it. Can't imagine who would do a thing like that."
"In this town it could be almost anyone," Tara replied, momentarily dropping her gaze to the floor before raising them to meet Willow's. "But I'm glad you're alright."
"Thank you Tara. It's nice to know that a no-account drifter like myself would warrant your good wishes."
Tara smiled sadly. Despite the playful tone of the remark, she saw old wounds in the expressive green eyes that met hers, and her heart seized painfully in her chest.
"Who told you that?"
"Told me what?"
"That you were a 'no-account'?"
"Oh. I... it doesn't matter," Willow spoke quietly, her flippant fašade crumbling under the gentle concern radiating from the blonde. 'Boy, nothing gets by her,' she thought uncomfortably, lapsing into silence. Tara took the hint and didn't pursue the point.
"So... what do you want to talk to Donnie-"
"Hey, did I hear my name?"
Tara jumped at the sound of her brother's voice and idly wondered how he had made it back downstairs without her hearing him. Tara glared at her brother, but Donnie simply widened his eyes innocently and lightly punched Willow in the shoulder.
"C'mon, Will. Tara's starting to look ornery and believe me, ornery Tara is something you do not want to see," he chuckled as he walked out onto the front porch.
Willow stood a moment longer, her eyes locked on Tara's. She placed her hat on her head and slowly brushed her right forefinger along the brim, tipping it as it reached the front.
"Actually, I think I would very much like to see that," she said seriously. With a wink and a nod, she turned and followed Donnie outside.
Tara had barely managed to finish mopping before her anxiousness became too much to bear. Knowing that it would be hours before Donnie got home, and another hour or two before she would be able to coax any information out of him, she decided to go for a walk. She headed north out of town, past the Mayor's mansion - so called not only because it was the only three-story building in Dusty Hollow, but it was also the only one constructed out of brick. Tara kept going until she arrived at a grove of trees, which she passed through on her way to a small, secluded pond. She stepped carefully over the mossy rocks until she reached one particular outcrop and sat down to unlace her boots. Hitching her skirt up to her knees, she let her feet dangle in the cool water and watched the path of several stray leaves bob along in the wake. She closed her eyes and leaned back on her elbows, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and the perfect stillness of the morning.
"Yoo-hoo! Tara, is that you?!"
'Oh, please God, not now,' the blonde groaned, refusing to open her eyes and confront the inevitable.
"Really, Tara, I don't know why you like this place so much, it's so muddy and the sun just bakes down on you - which is horrible for the complexion - and there's doubtless scores of snakes and bugs of all kinds, and it's unnaturally quiet..."
'Or it was until you showed up,' Tara thought with no small degree of irritation.
"Anya, what brings you here?" she asked as pleasantly as she could. 'And when are you going away,' she added silently.
"Well, I was at the store this morning as usual, and who should I see ride by but your brother and some total stranger. But then I remembered Xander talking about meeting some nice young man at the saloon last night, and well, I put two and two together and arrived at four! And then I saw you going for a walk all by yourself and knew that you would want some company, so here I am! Really Tara, it's not like to keep secrets... so who is he?"
Tara sighed deeply. 'Of course... she wants gossip.' Tara knew full well that Anya could not have seen her departure from inside the general store, and most likely had been outside lying in wait since the moment she'd seen Donnie and Will pass by.
"He's just some boy passing through town, and he came by this morning to speak with Donnie. I really don't know anything about him."
Both women frowned at the remark; Anya because it didn't satisfy her busybody nature, Tara because she realized how true it was. She hadn't thought to ask Will where he came from, where he was going to, what his profession was, if he had family... though she hadn't expected him to be around long enough for it to matter.
"Well that isn't very informative. I thought he must be a friend of the family or something. I even briefly considered that you'd finally gone and found yourself a man but clearly not," Anya shook her head and sighed wistfully.
Tara bristled that her marital status might be a topic of general conversation. In a town so small it was bound to be, but only her brother had ever had the temerity to bring it up to her face, and then only in jest. She couldn't fault Anya too much - the woman was famously imprudent, and so caught up with her own impending wedded bliss that she wanted everyone else to be blissful as well. 'As long as they don't overshadow her,' the blonde mused, realizing that the idea of Tara having a clandestine lover had probably sent Anya into a panic. Tara's eyes widened at thinking of the redhead in such a manner.
'Clandestine lover!' She blushed bright red and hoped that her friend would mistake it as too much sun.
"Ooooh," Anya cooed, wagging her finger at Tara.
'Oh, I'm never going to hear the end of this.'
"So there is something going on! Well, good for you! I knew those rumors weren't-"
Tara had been avoiding Anya's gaze, but her head instantly snapped up and her heart began racing.
"Rumors? There are rumors? What rumors?"
"Oh, that you don't want to get married because you're thinking about converting to Catholicism and becoming a nun... that sort of thing," Anya explained, smiling helpfully.
"But... why... that's... who would say such a thing?"
Anya pursed her lips and began smoothing out her skirt, which was already immaculate.
"Anya, you didn't?! Why on earth would you say that?!"
"I didn't mean to, honestly, it just sort of slipped out," Anya earnestly replied. "And I was defending you! Glory-"
"Glory?! You were discussing my marital status with Glory?!"
"She was in the store! She and Cordelia were buying face powder, so I of course told them they should just save some time and permanently paint their tired whore faces with whitewash, and well, one thing led to another, and Glory said something like: "we may be whores, but at least we're normal," and I demanded that she explain herself, and she said... well, she said some very uncharitable things about you."
Tara's face lost all semblance of it's earlier flush and paled noticeably. 'Surely they don't suspect...'
"And that's when I told her the nun story, which doesn't seem so bad now, does it? Plus it explains your absence at church these past months - you converting and all - so I think it was quite clever of me," Anya nodded smartly.
Tara felt her heart thumping in her chest, and she avoided looking at Anya when she asked, "w-why do you think she s-said those things?"
"Oh, who knows?" Anya gestured dismissively. "She's just a vindictive whore. Don't you let anything she says worry you. You just haven't met the right man yet."
The day before before, Tara would have listened politely, nodded her head, and secretly told herself that was never going to happen. A mere twenty-four hours prior, Tara knew that she'd never had, nor would she ever have, any interest in being romantically involved with a man. She knew it with certainty because it had always been that way. It had been confusing when she was younger, seeing the few other girls in Dusty Hollow swoon over this boy or that. She'd played along, feigning interest, but then one day the inevitable happened. One of her friends had told a boy that Tara liked him, and he had asked to walk her home after school. Walks home from school turned into a buggy ride after church, a picnic invitation. Finally Tara's lack of interest became so obvious that he had stopped trying and started walking Tara's friend home instead. And that's when Tara finally realized something. It hit her like a fencepost to the head, because she wasn't jealous of her friend, she was jealous of the boy.
It had taken a long time for Tara to accept her feelings, and she carefully hid them away, somehow knowing they were not to be spoken of. She decided that even if she could never act on them, however, she would never live a lie. She would never marry a man just for the sake of propriety, and what other reason could there be for her?
And then she met Will Smith.
"Anya... how did you know? When you fell for Xander, how did you know that he was the one?"
"Oh, it was horrible," Anya gushed, making an exaggeratedly sour face, but clearly overjoyed to discuss her favorite subject. "He came into the store shortly after he arrived, and there was just something about him. I couldn't take my eyes off of him, and I could tell he found me visually pleasing as well. He kept stopping by for odd and ends... he'd say he just forgot to get them the day before, but I knew he was just making excuses. I pretended not to be interested, of course... I mean, he's a fine carpenter, but he'll never be rich. But I found myself looking forward to seeing him walk through the door, and if a day went by without him visiting, I was miserable. And then he asked me to the social last year - you remember - and he told me he was miserable too. He asked if he could court me properly, and I said yes."
"And that's when you knew?" Tara asked, her earlier upset forgotten as she gave Anya her rapt attention.
"Heavens no! It was a month later when he had to travel to Knotty Stump for supplies and was gone for three weeks! I couldn't eat or sleep, my stomach was all tied up in knots worrying about whether he was eating or sleeping, and I felt positively ill I missed him so much."
"And that's wh-"
"Then he came back and I saw him walk into the store and I thought I was going to be sick right then and there, I was so happy."
Tara paused and blinked, waiting for her friend to continue, but she just sighed and stared dreamily across the pond.
"So... you knew you were in love because you were miserable and then you felt sick?"
'Oh my god,' thought Tara.
Anya drifted out of her reverie when Tara hadn't spoken for several minutes. She looked at the blonde, who stared slack-jawed at the water. She hesitated before knowingly and very quietly posing her question.
"How does he make you feel Tara?"
Tara took a deep breath.
"He makes me feel completely... totally... utterly... sick."
Anya clasped her hands to her chest and sighed.
"Oh, Tara... I'm so happy for you!"