Willow found her in the stables.
Despite her fear of horses, Willow didn't hesitate to walk down the aisle, stealing nervous glances into each stall, seeking.
She found her in the last stall. Tara was on the knees-heedless of the dirty straw- her arms around the neck of a fallen palomino, her face buried into her neck. Willow could hear her dry sobs from where she stood, and she felt her own eyes begin to tear.
For a long time, she hovered outside uncertainly. The moment seemed so private, and utterly...sacred. Willow, a girl who could never understand why people liked horses, suddenly saw a new side to the animal. It was obvious that Tara loved the horse- she was grieving, and she wasn't going to hide it. Part of Willow urged her to walk away without saying anything, pretend she hadn't be there to avoid any awkwardness, but the other part of her told her she couldn't just leave Tara there.
Her decision was ultimately made for her when Tara sniffed loudly, and twisted to look up at Willow. Her eyes were red, and her skin blotchy- it pained Willow just to see her. Black streaks of mascara painted her cheeks, and she offered a watery smile.
"I-I'm s-s-sorry..." She whispered hoarsely, gazing at her hands with excessive interest.
Willow cleared her throat, trying not to stare-even mourning, she still looked like an angel-and trying to be inconspicuous as she wiped at her own eyes. "Don't be. I'm sorry; I was the one who was all intrude-y on you. Are you...are you okay?"
Tara looked away, at Lalita. Willow studied the horse in silence, and was relieved to see the faint rise and fall of her chest, even though the movement was strained. Finally, Tara turned her eyes back to her hands again. It was a long time before she spoke.
Willow admired Tara for her courage. Tara's voice didn't break when she spoke the words; it was even and calm. She was accepting it, Willow could tell.
Willow swallowed hard, and stared at her feet- huh. She hadn't even bothered to grab shoes on her way out. Why hadn't she noticed? The ground just outside the stable was gravel- and blinked back a few tears. "I'm sorry..."
Tara took a deep breath, and finally looked up. She smiled sadly at Willow, and shook her head. "I-it's...it's okay. She's getting old, and is having problems with arthritis. I would have to put her down soon, anyway."
Willow could only stared, fascinated, and...awed. The way Tara had been sobbing obviously stated that Tara loved Lalita a lot. How she could calmly discuss it was beyond Willow. Willow couldn't also help but notice that Tara didn't stutter when she spoke of the horse, a fact that interested her when she remembered back to when they had met.
"You really love horses," She blurted out without thinking, and was instantly chagrined. Her face and neck flushed with embarrassment. "I mean, duh, of course you do, or else you wouldn't be working with them. Oh, that was a stupid thing to say; I mean, I own a horse ranch, and I really don't like them that much. It's not that I don't like them; I'm just kind of scared of them, and...oh, crap."
Tara, silent during the whole Willow babble-fest, tilted her head to the side inquiringly, an action Willow found endearing. "W-Willow...?"
Willow blinked back into focus, and smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Sometimes I do that a lot-babble, I mean. It's a bad habit of mine...I wish I wouldn't; it's really embarrassing. And...oh, not again."
Willow was amazed to see Tara half-smile. It was only for a fraction of a second, but that crooked smile still lightened the heaviness of her heart. "I think it's kind of cute."
Willow's cheeks flamed. "You...you do?"
Tara laughed softly. "Yeah, I do. You can certainly talk enough for the both of us."
Willow had to admit that she loved Tara's laugh, and she was pleased she could make Tara laugh when she was obviously grieving. She vowed silently to herself to make Tara laugh as often as possible now that she was in obvious pain. So, with a hesitant smile, she pressed forward.
"Yeah, yeah, I do. It's been really annoying- ever since I was little. I just start talking when I'm nervous, and I just can't stop. Even when I know I'm babbling, I can't stop, and I just go on and on and on..." Willow was in full-babble mode now, and even as her cheeks burned, she couldn't stop talking.
"Willow," Tara interrupted quietly. "Take a deep breath."
Willow complied, inhaling deeply. She smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry."
Tara gave Willow her adorable half-smile once more. "You d-don't need to a-apologize."
Willow beamed at her, grateful for her acceptance. They lapsed into silence for a long moment. Tara returned her eyes back to Lalita, stroking her neck gently, methodically, while Willow mostly studied Tara, amazed by this unique, beautiful woman she had just met, and already come to love.
Her eyes still locked on Lalita, Tara murmured: "W-why're you nervous?"
Willow blinked, startled out of a fantasy that she knew would get her in trouble with Tara if ever spoken out loud. "Huh?"
Tara finally looked up, her lips quirked into her special smile. "You said when you're nervous, you babble. Why are you nervous?"
"O-oh." Willow flushed a dark red. "I...I dunno...I just...feel..." -She paused, searching for a word-"nervous," She finished lamely, and then promptly returned her eyes to her bare feet.
"You don't have to be nervous around me; I don't bite."
Willow looked up. Tara's tone was teasing, but her eyes were serious. She flashed Willow an impish smile. "H-hard," She added with a careless grin, though her skin darkened a bit at the comment.
Willow laughed softly, and was pleased to see Tara's eyes warm at the sound. She suddenly felt shy again. "D-do you need something? I could stay with you, if you want?"
Tara bit her lip, hesitating. "Y-you don't mind?"
Willow blinked. "Mind? Are you kidding?"
Tara stared at her in silence, bewildered. Willow smile sheepishly. "That's a rhetorical question. Of course I don't mind."
Tara blinked once, taking a moment to process, and then smiled invitingly, patting the ground beside her once.
Willow, after a long pause, cautiously unlatched the stall door, and slipped inside. Encouraged by another smile from Tara, she sidled along the wall, avoiding Lalita as much as possible-though she felt bad to do so- and settled next to Tara, careful to keep a good distance between them.
Tara's smile was apologetic. "Y-you don't have to d-do this, you know."
"But I want to," Willow reminded her firmly. "What're friends for?"
Tara blushed, and returned her eyes to Lalita. "Thank-you, W-Willow."
Willow patted her shoulder comfortingly- trying to be sneaky about letting her hand linger longer than it should have. "It's no problem. Can I do anything?"
Tara was quiet for a long moment, staring at Lalita. "There is o-one thing..."
"What?" Willow pressed gently. "I'll do anything if it helps. Tara, tell me. Can I help?"
"Yeah." Tara took a deep breath, and looked up at Willow. Her ocean eyes burned with some emotion that sent a shiver of anticipation down Willow's spine, yet begged to her at the same time; the expression in those eyes tugged painfully on Willow's heartstrings. "Hold me."
Faith and Riley found them like that, two and a half hours later, Tara wrapped in Willow's comforting embrace, her face buried into the redhead's shoulder while Willow rested her cheek on the silky hair below her.
Faith's smug voice interrupted their small pocket of grieving. "Well, well, well" –Both women started, and then jumped apart- "Beautiful and gorgeous."
Tara flushed a deep red. "Faith!" She snapped, doing her best to hide her embarrassment, and ultimately failing.
Willow gave her a questioning look, her cheeks slightly pink, and then turned her bewildered eyes to Faith and Riley. Faith merely looked triumphant, while Riley looked shocked and slightly hurt. Willow's eyes widened when she realized what Faith meant-and she decided that if she blushed anymore, her head would explode- and then narrowed when she understood Riley's expression. She deliberately wrapped one arm around Tara's waist, pulling her in closer-Tara gasped, and blushed- her eyes locked with her two farm hands above her. "I was just taking Tara in."
Tara's eyes were still wide as saucers. "You were?" She asked softly, so only Willow could hear.
Willow glanced at her over her shoulder, and flashed her a small smile. "Just follow my lead," She mouthed. Tara inclined her head the tiniest bit, to show Willow she understood.
Willow carefully helped Tara stand, Tara following willingly. Even when Tara was standing stably, Willow kept one arm curled firmly around her waist, both a comfort and for her own secret reasons. "Tara, you should eat something."
Tara shook her head. "But I'm not-"
"Going to argue," Willow interrupted firmly, then smiled at her to soften the order. "Please?" She added quietly, for Tara's ears only. "For me?"
Tara sighed, long and deep. Willow had hit her weak spot. "Fine," She muttered in defeat.
Willow grinned at her, and then turned her eyes back to Faith and Riley. "Guys, could you...?"
Shock flickered across Riley's face, followed by pain. Faith was only grimly acceptant. "She's gone?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Willow could see Tara's hands had curled into fists, her breathing accelerated, her eyes squeezed shut. So she only nodded, to spare Tara, and, pressing lightly with the hand on Tara's waist, led her quickly and quietly out of the stables, and towards the house.
They walked in silence for most of the way. Willow constantly glanced at Tara, worried by her blank expression, the tears held back in her blue eyes. Finally, trying to lighten the mood, Willow asked teasingly: "Beautiful and gorgeous?"
Tara laughed brokenly, almost at the point of sobbing. "Faith and I were a-arguing about the meaning of the w-words yesterday."
Willow was quiet for a moment, considering, and then grinned, rather goofily. "And... I was the subject in question?"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Willow regretted them. Tara's cheeks went pink, then tomato red in the long stretch of awkward silence. Willow ears went hot; she looked away, and silently led Tara up the porch steps, and into the kitchen. Once inside, Willow quickly-but reluctant- removed her arm, and moved hastily towards the kitchen while Tara sat at the island.
"What do you want to eat? I know you're not hungry, but it will help. I can't cook much- okay, so I practically burn everything- but I can try and make you everything! I can't guarantee edible food, but I'll try! Or do you want-"
"Willow!" Tara finally intercepted. "I'm fine with j-j-just dry toast; my s-s-stomach's a little..."
Willow ducked her head sheepishly. "Yeah...sorry."
Tara put her head down cold counter, hoping it would help hold back the tears as Willow moved swiftly and quietly through the kitchen, placing two slices of bread in the toaster, and pulling out the container of margarine out of the fridge. The toast popped up; Willow pulled them out quickly, buttered them lightly, and then placed them on a plate, pushing the plate across the counter to Tara. While Tara murmured a thanks, Willow filled a glass full of water, dropped a few ice cubes in it, and then placed it in front of Tara. Instead of arguing, Tara merely gave her a smile of thanks, and went back to picking at her toast.
Willow watched her in silence, smearing too much Nutella on her slice of bread, preoccupied with Tara's grief. She ate with her eyes still on Tara, waiting for her to speak.
Finally, she did. Tara finally looked up from her toast, and then pushed it away. "I'm sorry, W-Willow. I just c-can't eat."
Willow nodded, her mouth still full, and quickly removed the offending plate. She swallowed, and said softly: "S'okay. My fault."
Tara shook her head. "N-no, it's mine. I just...I j-j-just think I need s-some s-s-s-sleep."
Willow nodded, and offered her a hopeful smile. "Of course! Is there anything I can-?"
Tara shook her head, cutting her off with a sad smile. "N-no, I'll be f-fine, W-W-Willow. Thank-you f-for offering."
Willow smiled apologetically. "Right. Sorry. If you need anything..."
Tara smiled. "I'll come to you."
Willow's answering grin was dazzling. She stayed where she was, not wanting to upset Tara further, one hand resting on the counter, as she watched Tara trudge up the stairs. When Tara disappeared, she sighed, and banging her head against the counter with a dull thud.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid!" She muttered fiercely to herself. "Rosenberg, you're an idiot!"
Willow started at the sound of her name, in the familiar voice, and whirled around to find Tara standing uncertainly at the top of the stairs, one hand on the wall, as if she needed the support.
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and looked up to meet Willow's bewildered gaze. "You were the subject."
Willow's whole body went hot with embarrassment. Waves of shock rendered her helpless as Tara disappeared too quickly for her to say anything at all.