They moved their little party into the living room, but it started to get confusing with seven people in the small room together. The laughter from one joke cut into another, and finally there was a silent mutual agreement that they all arrange themselves in one big circle, and tell different stories. Tara didn't talk a lot, but she smiled the whole time. She felt a lot happier than she had in a long time, and the warmth of the whole circle enveloped her, a warm glow that started in her chest, and then stretched across her whole body.
She learned a lot of interesting-and embarrassing- stories about a younger Willow-mostly from Xander-and, to Willow's chagrin, saw many pictures, as Xander and Buffy had taken the liberty to bring as many as they could gather together. Tara saw baby Willow, toddler Willow, child Willow, adolescent Willow, teenage Willow, and finally young adult Willow, some of the more recent pictures taken only months before.
Tara could've spent the whole night just looking at the pictures, and hearing the same stories over and over again all night about the girl she had fallen in love with, but she didn't want to act too suspiciously, so, eventually, she surrendered her picture of nineteen- year- old Willow on her first day of college- the cutest one by far, she decided, because of the adorable bob Willow had her hair cut in, framing her younger face well, and making her seem even more open and friendly than she already was- and said with a coy smile: "I-I think my favourite s-s-story was the one where W-Wil went after that girl with a b-baseball bat."
Willow blushed, and stared at her hands. "You're evil," She mumbled, so only Tara could hear.
Buffy laughed warmly. "That was a good one. Really, poor Amy. I think Wil traumatized her for a week."
"I really thought she was hurting Herbert," Willow protested, "He was squealing for me to help him."
Tara laughed softly. "Y-you speak pig?"
Willow grinned. "Only when they squeal clearly."
They smiled at each other for a moment, but when Faith, lounging beside Tara, very consciously elbowed her in the ribs, Tara quickly tore her eyes away from Willow, and turned them back to her feet.
"So, Tare, if I may call you that" -On her nod, Xander smiled, and continued- "what about you? Any good stories to tell us? After all, a friend of Wil's is a friend of our's, and the one condition that be part of the Scoobies is you have to tell us all your embarrassing secrets. So, let's hear ‘em." He rubbed his palms together eagerly, as if anticipating a good meal.
Panic-stricken, Tara blanched, horrified to find all eyes on her. What now? She couldn't tell them any embarrassing stories from her childhood because there weren't any embarrassing stories from her childhood. Just unpleasant ones. Very unpleasant ones she wasn't inclined to share.
As if sensing her alarm, Faith nudged her in the arm, and laced her fingers together behind her head, putting her feet up on the table, the picture of ease. "Ah, the stories I could tell." When Tara glanced at her, apprehensive, she winked at her. "Like that time with that guy at the fair."
Tara opened her mouth to protest, but found it didn't want to co-operate. She went pink, but was helpless to stop her best friend as she went ahead, and told one of the most embarrassing moments of her life to the people she was trying to impress and appear sane in front of.
"Tare and I were at the fair one day- Willow's uncle had taken us, since Tara was in the dressage show- and we were watching the calf roping. Tara, of course, was complaining about the whole unfairness of the situation, and what did the calves ever do to them, and blah blah blah" -Off Tara's mortified look, Faith winked again, and grinned- "when this guy-totally wasted- came up behind us. He was a real stud, very nice looking, but he apparently didn't want to take me on- too tough, I guess- so he went up to Tara, and put a hand on her arm. She didn't do anything at first, just smiled and nodded, but when he wouldn't leave her alone, she finally pulled away. When he made a move on her again, she started to get pissed off. So she just smiled sweetly at him, took his beer from his hand, and said: ‘Sorry, but kissing you is probably like sucking alcohol soaked feet', and dumped the drink on his head."
Everyone howled with laughter while Tara blushed and stared at her hands, and Willow stared at her blankly. Well. She never knew Tara had that kind of courage and sass. She liked it. Very much.
"Thanks, Faith, you're a real pal," Tara muttered.
Faith smirked. "Just keepin' it real, Tare-bear."
Eventually, the banter slowed down, and wine for the adults- and hot chocolate for Tara, who decided she'd already made enough of a fool out of herself without adding alcohol, and Dawn- and everyone mostly just caught up with each other. Tara just sat back, sipped her hot chocolate, and watched everyone chat-but mostly Willow- semi-pleased with how the evening had turned out. So she'd completely made an ass of herself in front of Willow's friends, but they still seemed to tolerate her. Well, as long as they didn't hate her completely, Tara was okay with that.
"I thought you said she wasn't gay?"
Willow looked up, alarmed, to see Anya was pointing to Tara. "Anya! I never said any-"
"W-Wil, it's okay," Tara murmured, taking a chance and patting Willow's knee soothingly. "Y-you warned me about h-her, and it's o-okay."
Willow flashed her a shy smile, covering the hand on her knee with her own, and interlacing their fingers to give it a quick, grateful squeeze. "You're too kind," She muttered dryly.
Tara's eyes flashed down to note Willow's warm hand wrapped around her's, resting comfortably on Willow's knee, but she kept moving, trying not to turn into a sweaty, blubbering mess. "S-she's kind of amusing, actually," She said quietly, watching Anya, who had given up on talking to either Tara or Willow-who had been wrapped up in their own little world for the past ten minutes- playing charades with Dawn, much to Faith's amusement, who was using the opportunity to use any double-meaning word in front of Dawn that she could. "And honest. I-I admire that."
"Really?"They both watched Buffy effectively end the game when Faith guessed "Veronica Hart" and Dawn asked who she was. "I just find it kind of annoying."
Tara couldn't help herself; her eyes were drawn, once again, to their intertwined fingers. Willow glanced down quickly, seeming to realize what she was doing, and quickly let go of her hand.
"Crap, Tara, I'm sorry; I'm just so grabby; that's what happens when you grow up with Xander. You think spontaneous hugs, and holding hands, and randomly sitting on people is okay with everyone. That's what he's like; you get so used to it, and-"
"Wil." Tara put a finger over her lips to quiet her babble, then blushed when her mind caught up with her action, and she swiftly moved away. "It's okay." She twined her fingers with Willow's once more, much to Willow's embarrassment, and let them rest on her knee.
Willow looked from their hands, up to Tara, surprised to see Tara's eyes two shades darker than they normally were. Her lips quirked into Willow's favourite crooked half-smile, and Willow had to smile back.
But when she felt eyes on her, she glanced over, mortified to see everyone in the room watching them with varying expressions. Faith had that familiar I-told-you-so smirk all over her face, while Riley seemed shocked, but not horrified like she was sure he normally would be- Does that have something to with Buffy, I wonder?- and Buffy was grinning so wide Willow was sure it hurt. Anya was smug, pleased with herself that she was sure that was right, and Xander was smiling. Dawn was beaming, all hugs and puppies.
Willow looked back to Tara to find her blushing, but smiling. The pure electricity running through their linked hands was starting to get overwhelming, but Willow didn't want to let go.
She didn't ever want to let go.
Tara spent the rest of the evening in a daze. The whole incident with Willow had turned her whole world upside down and given it a good shake or two. Never had she felt such electricity in her whole life, and she was still in aftershock. She was lucky to respond to Buffy, Xander, or Dawn, though mostly Dawn talked to her, seeming to be interested in finding everything out about, and by the end of the evening, Tara was quite comfortable with the teenager, and found she actually had a lot in common with her.
"So how long have you been working with horses?" Dawn asked Tara as she followed her into the kitchen, helping Tara carry empty mugs and wine glasses into the kitchen while everyone else figured out where everyone would be sleeping and who was bunking with who.
"Ever. I-I mean, s-since I was little. My mom, she used to..." Tara trailed off, putting the rest of the glasses into the sink, mentally kicking herself for even going there. She didn't want to turn into a sobbing imbecile in front of the one person out of the group who actually seemed to really like her.
Dawn sat at the island, resting her weight on her elbow, and cupping her neck, studying Tara in silence. Instead of being embarrassed by the scrutiny, like she usually would, she met Dawn's gaze almost wearily for a moment, and then turned her attention back to the sink, filling it with soapy water, and starting the dishes; because of Willow's insistence that she rest, the dishes from breakfast and lunch were still there, and Tara sighed as she set to work, a little shocked to find she'd much rather be out in the living room, considering she usually didn't do well with crowds.
"You miss her a lot."
Tara smiled wryly. "Is it that obvious?" She was surprised to find she didn't stutter; she was more comfortable around Dawn than she realized.
"I know how you feel. My mom died two years ago."
Tara looked up sympathetically, but Dawn was calmly examining the garnet counter top. "Pretty," She murmured sarcastically. "Looks like the gravel back home. Very appealing."
Tara chuckled. "We had it made from the gravel in the driveway." When Dawn laughed, Tara felt the rest of her anxiety drain away, pleased she had said something completely dorky. "W-well, you're strong, I'll g-give that to y-you. I went all r-rebellious, and I was about y-your age when it happened. N-Not a very pleasant person back t-then."
"You, rebellious?" Dawn stifled a chuckle. "I'm sorry; it's just, that, well, you're so nice, and sweet, and you really care about people. I can see why Willow likes you."
"Huh?" Tara looked up blankly from the knife she was carefully washing, mindful of the blade. "D-Dawn, what're you t-talking about?"
"Oh please." Dawn rolled her eyes dramatically. "If you two were any more conspicuous about it, I'd stick a sign on you both that said ‘Get a room.' That whole thing where she fell, and you caught her? If I'd fallen on a friend, I would've been quick to get up, but Wil was in no hurry to move, and you weren't too unhappy about her being there."
Tara flushed a bright red, and her hands automatically curled into fists- including the one holding the knife.
"OUCH!" She yelped, dropping the knife into the sink, splashing soapy water everywhere. Upon contact, it turned the water red. Red with blood. Tara's stomach lurched. She suddenly felt light-headed, incredibly dizzy, and she slumped against the counter, holding onto her conscience with I'll-never-let-you-go-alive determination, even when her body screamed for release from the pain.
"Shi-oot! Shoot! Ow!"
"Tara!" Dawn scrambled over the counter to reach her more quickly. "Oh my god, Tara, are you okay?!"
"D-Dawn, I'm fine. Just a little..."
"Tara, oh my god, Tara, your hand!"
Tara looked down at the hand in questioning, and was shocked to see a wide gash across her palm, as deep as the wound she had been given when she had cut herself on barbed wire trying to free an inquisitive foal from a bit of left-over fence that had not been removed, maybe even deeper, gushing blood.
"Ugh. O-o-okay, worse than I thought, but still..." Her legs suddenly failed her; her knees buckled, and she went down hard. She was so lost in the pain of her hand that she didn't feel anything when her bad shoulder hit the counter on her way down.
"Buffy!" She heard Dawn scream, "Buffy, come quick!"
So suddenly, Willow and Faith were there, on either side of her, grabbing her hand, tugging, pulling, yelling at each other. Whatever they were saying was lost in the ringing in Tara's ears. Her vision was blurring, the release she needed finally granted, and she fell down, down into the dark waters below.
And then she was there, leaning over her, screaming at her, dragging her back to the surface. "Tara, stay with me, okay?! Tara, do you hear me?! Stay with me! Tara! Oh, god, Tara, stay!"
Tara struggled, struggled with her numb lips until she finally managed to force out the name she wanted. "Willow...?"
"Yes, Tara, honey, I'm here. Please, please, just stay with me. Oh, god..."
Tara's lips curled into the best half-smile she could manage. She was babbling again. "W-Wil...W-Wil..."
"Yes, Tara, what is it? Oh, god. Buffy, call 911!"
"Already on it. Yes, we need an ambulance. Someone cut her hand here, bad. Stitches? Definitely. Um...I don't know. She's showing signs of a concussion. Willow? Has Tara hit her head recently?"
"Yeah." Willow sounded like she was close to tears, a fact that played havoc on Tara's heartstrings. "She fell of a horse and injured her shoulder."
"Hurry the hell up!" Faith snapped from somewhere nearby.
Warm hands brushed hair away from her mouth. Willow. "The what, honey?"
Tara swallowed hard, and plunged forward. "T-the dishes...somebody needs to f-f-f-finish the dishes..."
And then she let go of the edge, and spiraled down into the darkness.