Willow stood against the barn wall as she had for the past hour, smiling in contentment as she watched couples twirl around the makeshift dance floor. She absentmindedly nursed her beer and sighed, feeling relaxed for the first time since the dinner conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn.
Willow made a half-hearted attempt to follow the men's banter, but most of her concentration was spent covertly observing Tara. Both girls had been disappointed when Anya had insisted that the men sit at one set of tables, the women at the others, but they had frequently caught each other's eyes over the course of the meal. Shy, tentative glances over steaming bowls of stew had turned to long, lingering looks by the time they'd pushed aside their plates of mincemeat pie. Several of the men had pulled out hand-carved pipes and tobacco pouches while the women cleared the tables and retreated to the main house. Willow was anxiously awaiting the blonde's return when the preacher's booming voice drowned out the various conversations around the table.
"Friend Rupert, what news do you hear from back East?"
"Not much of note," the Englishman admitted. "President Johnson continues to make a mess of things, I'm afraid. They say the old boy would have pardoned Benedict Arnold himself had he the chance. There is word that the Union Pacific is in negotiations with the Indians for land in the Dakota territories."
"Negotiations?" Willow spat. "Is that what they're calling it?"
"Yes, well, it is an unpleasant fact of modern life that progress always comes at someone's expense," Giles pondered aloud.
"I refuse to concede that the destruction of a civilization qualifies as 'progress'," the redhead stated forcefully.
"But Will, they got all that land they ain't using for nothin'," Donnie argued with a frown. "Jus' think of all the town's could be settled, all those people comin' out here, puttin' down roots. Why, we could have cities to rival New York all along the rails."
"That doesn't justify theft and mass murder," Willow countered, feeling her anger rise.
"Speaking of theft," Preacher Rayne smoothly interjected. "Has there been any more word on the Red Bandit?"
Willow sat perfectly still, her eyes darting nervously around the group. She caught a glimpse of Ethan's amused smirk and could feel his eyes on her, but steadfastly refused to meet his gaze.
"Yes, actually," Giles supplied. "Reports out of St. Louis say he robbed a store of dynamite from the rail yard and made a clean escape, right under the noses of the authorities, no less. Quite remarkable, really"
The return of the women brought an abrupt end to the discussion, much to Willow's relief. Clem, Hank, and several other men moved to the stage, and when Dawn bashfully approached the redhead to ask for a dance, Willow gratefully accepted. The band kicked off the festivities with a lively reel, during which Willow and Dawn hopped energetically around the barn, landing on each other's feet as often as the floor, and causing more than a few collisions with the other dancers. Willow hastily excused herself after the first number, and retreated to one side to watch the party from a safe distance.
Mostly, Willow watched Tara, who had not left the dance floor all evening, taking turns with Xander, Larry, and her brother. The redhead smiled warmly as she watched the blonde glide gracefully around the room, her billowing skirt rustling. As Tara and Donnie paired off to dance a quadrille, Willow was struck by the blonde's change in demeanor. Gone was the shy, reserved girl who seemed to wither under the weight of her responsibilities; replaced by the confident, vivacious woman whose smile and laughter lit up the room.
'This is her family,' Willow realized, thinking back on how Tara had interacted with the women over dinner. 'This is her home. She loves them as they love her. She'll never be convinced to leave, not even for her own safety.'
The redhead sighed deeply and closed her eyes, opening them a moment later to find her gaze locked with Tara's. The song had ended without her realizing it, and Donnie had moved to take Hank's place on stage while the host sought out his wife. Willow's legs began moving as if drawn by gravitational pull, her unblinking green eyes drowning in Tara's blue depths, unaware of anything but the rapidly closing distance between them.
'Fifteen feet... ten... five...'
Willow stopped with a jerk as a form placed itself squarely between her and her goal. She blinked at the man's back in confusion, completely unaware of the arrival several minutes before of two uninvited guests, one of whom had made a beeline for Tara. The band started to play as Willow angrily realized who was blocking her path.
"Come on, Tara... one dance for old times' sakes?"
"No thank you, Warren," the blonde answered coolly. Willow lightly stepped around the sheriff and held out a hand.
"My dance?" she asked hopefully, holding her breath.
"Shove off, Junior," Mears sneered, but to his obvious consternation, Tara had already taken the offered hand and was moving to the center of the dance floor.
The band struck up an air, the sweet drone of the fiddle blending smoothly with Donnie's surprisingly melodic tenor. Her left hand still holding Tara's right, Willow raised her right hand to the blonde's waist, her tremulous fingers barely brushing the silk, a shudder coursing through her slim frame as she felt Tara's left hand fall lightly on her shoulder.
Within moments the redhead was cursing herself for not participating more in the dances at the orphanage, and for neglecting to ask Danny to teach her the man's steps when he was coaching her on proper male behavior. The second time she stepped on Tara's toes, she stopped altogether, bowing her head and taking deep breaths through her nose to force down the tears she felt welling up inside her.
"I'm sorry, Tara," she spoke quietly, staring down at her shoes. "I should have told you I can't dance."
Delicate fingers cupped her chin and gently guided her face up to meet the blonde's.
"Maybe we should just sit," she admitted in dismay, which only deepened when the Tara shook her head slightly.
"I want to dance," she softly replied.
Willow nodded sadly and began to step back, looking over at a group of men and wondering whom the blonde would choose. To her astonishment, Tara tightened her hold on their linked hands and pulled the redhead closer, leading Willow's right hand around her waist and placing it firmly against her back. Willow felt her heart beating erratically as Tara's left arm came to rest across her shoulder blade, her fingers raising goose bumps on the bare skin at the nape of Willow's neck.
"Tara?" the name escaped her questioning lips in a gasp.
"Will you let me lead?" the blonde whispered.
"You... lead?" the redhead's addled brain replied.
Tara stiffened and blushed. "I kn-know it isn't exactly p-proper," she stuttered, her confidence faltering.
"You lead," Willow stated firmly, smiling into the blonde's relieved face. "I'll follow."
A series of spirited jigs followed their dance, and Willow happily stepped aside while the Maclay siblings spun around the floor to cheerful clapping. The redhead was just approaching the barn after a visit to the privy when an agitated and clearly drunk Xander intercepted her and led her away from the entrance.
"Will, I gotta talk to ya," the young man mumbled.
"Okay," the redhead replied distractedly, anxious to return to the party.
"Are you Green Eyed Red?"
Willow froze, her body stiff, eyes wide, mind racing. Before she could even begin to consider a response, the carpenter continued.
"It's jus'... I found all this dynamite in your cart, and I can't for the life of me figure out why you'd be haulin' it in a secret commart... compapart... hidey-hole."
"Oh, err, well... what if I was to say, theoretically of course, that I am... what would you do?"
"I heard all these stories, but... you ain't really no killer, are ya?"
"Again, theoretically, if I was the, uh... that person... I think I'd probably be trying to help people, not kill anyone."
The man swayed and blinked his half closed eyes as a lazy smile spread across his face. He draped a heavy arm across the redhead's shoulders and nodded emphatically.
"You haven't told anyone about this, have you?" Willow asked nervously, struggling to support Xander's weight as she led him back into the barn.
"Your secret's safe with me," he slurred, lying down on the nearest picnic table bench and promptly passing out. Willow jumped back as an angry Sheriff Mears brushed past her, dragging a protesting brunette by the arm.
"Hey! What do you think-"
"Will, don't!" Donnie hissed, pulling the redhead away from the departing pair. "Just let 'em go."
"That's his wife," Donnie snapped. "It's their business, you'd best stay out of it."
Willow turned to argue with her friend, but her words stuck in her throat when saw the hurt look in eyes as he watched the couple climb into their carriage and roll away. As the dust settled in the wagon's wake, Donnie shrugged and looked back at the redhead.
"Besides, the last song is comin' up. You ain't gonna leave my sister to dance with some other feller, are ya?"
Willow grinned and shook her head, stopping in an archway as Donnie hurried to the rear of the barn and scampered onto the stage, where he conferred with the musicians. Willow craned her neck over the heads of the remaining guests, eagerly seeking out the blonde. The crowd parted at the first haunting strains of the waltz, and Willow found herself gazing directly at Tara.
They moved as one, meeting in the center of the floor as the other couples swirled around them. Without hesitation Willow slid her right arm around Tara's waist, but was shocked to feel the blonde press even closer than their earlier embrace, leaving almost no room between their bodies. When Tara stepped forward to steer their movements, Willow felt their thighs touch, and despite the many layers of cloth separating them, her heart raced at the sensation. Willow let her mind go as the blonde effortlessly guided them across the floor, the subtle pressure of Tara's fingers on the back of her neck and on her hand silently leading her through the dance. With every turn they seemed to draw closer, the pattern they moved in smaller, until at every step Willow's right cheek brushed against Tara's left.
By the time the song ended they were barely moving at all, simply swaying in time, their eyes closed, oblivious to the musicians putting away their instruments and the guests calling out tired yet cheerful goodnights. When at last green eyes opened to meet blue, both saw flushed faces and heaving chests, both recognized that the reaction was not due to exertion. Tara's fingers toyed with the fringe of hair at the back of Willow's neck, and the redhead released a breathy sigh. The blonde took half a step back and uncurled her arm from Willow's neck, trailing her fingers across the redhead's shoulder, over her collarbone and down...
"Tara!" the redhead gasped, quickly releasing the blonde's waist and pinning the wandering hand in place against her wildly beating heart.
Tara's expression of calm wonder never wavered as she extricated her right hand from where it lay at her side, still linked with Willow's, and raised it to caress trembling fingers over the redhead's cheek.
"So soft," she whispered, leaning forward and trapping their hands together against the redhead's chest.
Willow felt paralyzed, terrified and exhilarated at the same time as she watched Tara's eyelids fall closed, her full lips agonizingly close to Willow's. A muffled giggle made them jump apart, and they turned to see an embarrassed Buffy hastily dragging Dawn out of the barn. Donnie appeared in the doorway and looked apologetically at the blushing pair.
"It's uh, gettin' late. Me and Clem's gonna take Xander and Anya home... neither of em's fit to drive. Y'all mind riding back alone?"
Tara merely nodded, briskly moving to retrieve her shawl and pausing at the doorway for Willow, who smiled weakly at Donnie and followed the blonde to the waiting cart.