A mass of revelers spilled out of the Summers' barn, festively decorated for Xander and Anya's wedding. The boisterous group cheered gaily at the snow, which had been falling for the better part of the day, depositing a fresh blanket of downy white over the already existing layers and providing ample insulation from the usually harsh prairie winds. Parents called to their children, who lobbed their final snowballs at one another before joining their families.
As the crowd began to disperse for the night the bride hugged them all, while the groom enthusiastically shook hands with each and every person. Willow laughed at the sight of the town's new minister, finally managing to yank his hand away from Xander's clasp. The redhead turned to see Tara gazing at her wistfully and ambled over to her love's side.
"They did it!"
"Did you think they wouldn't?" Tara laughed.
"No, of course not," Willow replied quickly, "but I think Xander had his doubts. He seems to be a little in shock."
The pair again looked at the groom, who had an enormous smile plastered to his beaming face, his eyes wide and unblinking. He pumped Dawn's arm heartily, not noticing the pained expression on the girl's face.
"Do you think Donnie will be that bad?" Willow asked.
Tara followed the redhead's gaze to her brother, who stood with Larry, Clem and Hank, the latter three clapping him on the back and giving an occasional hoot. Donnie himself shifted on his feet and pulled at his rumpled collar, giving the impression of a fidgety child at church. His face was flushed, which may have been from the chill night air, but Tara knew it wasn't entirely.
She smiled as she caught her brother's eyes, but it was only for a moment before his were again darting to where Faith stood conversing with Anya and a group of women. The daughter of the former mayor of Dusty Hollow, widow of the town's former sheriff, clutched the bridal bouquet in both hands. She had yet to relinquish it since deftly shouldering Buffy aside to snatch it in mid air. Buffy herself still eyed the prize jealously, although the intrepid Lieutenant Finn, lingering nearby, seemed vaguely relieved.
"Yoo hoo!" Anya called out, silencing the various conversations and drawing all eyes to her. "Xander and I have a train to catch, so if anyone has any last minute gifts, you may present them now."
After a final round of congratulations and well wishes, Xander helped Anya into their waiting sleigh, which had been festively decorated with pine garlands dotted with holly berries. The bells attached to the horse collar jingled merrily as they set out for the train station. The remaining guests waved their goodbyes to the Summers family and hastened to their own sleds and skids, similarly decorated for the occasion, and departed toward their respective homes.
Tara climbed into Willow's sleigh, a small open-sided two-seater with a high rounded back and cushioned leather seat. The sleigh, a gift from the townspeople, was painted a cheerful bright red and had fondly been nicknamed ‘the Red Bandit,' much to Tara's dismay at the reference to Willow's unsavory past. Even though Willow was now respectably working as Xander's apprentice in his carpentry business, her infamous history seemed to be growing ever more intriguing to the local population.
Several newspapers and publishers of dime novels had even offered to publish her tales, under a pseudonym of course, and Tara knew the idea appealed to her mischievous lover. Despite Willow's apparent contentment with her newfound settled life, Tara feared it was only a matter of time before the allure of the trail again called to the redhead. In the calm of the previous several months, they had never once spoken of the future. Until that inevitable day came, however, Tara was going to cherish every moment they had together.
Willow took her seat and snuggled close to Tara, who draped a heavy gray woolen blanket over their legs, leaning across the redhead, ostensibly to tuck the blanket around her hips but taking advantage of their positions to steal a kiss, which became several before Willow drew back and reached for the reins. Tara furrowed her brow at her love's reticence, but before she could voice her puzzlement, Willow smiled warmly.
"I want to take you someplace, and if we keep kissing, we'll end up sitting here all night, which sounds really good, except that we'd probably end up buried under a big ol' pile of snow and freezing to death with our lips stuck together, and while that sounds nice and all, the lip part, not the-"
Tara kissed Willow again, firmly silencing the wagging tongue with her own. Willow sighed happily and gave a lazy shake of the reins.
"Giddyup, Miss Horsey," she slurred, drunk on Tara. The horse bobbed its head and set off at a trot, the bells around its neck jangling out a cheery melody.
Tara lay her head on Willow's shoulder and pulled one of Willow's hands onto her lap, where she clasped it between her own. Their ride took them through the sparse forest, which glowed a silvery blue in the bright moonlight. Heavily laden tree limbs dipped down toward the earth on either side of the road, forming a tunnel of snow. Only the sound of the bells broke the stillness of the evening as they glided towards town. Tara let her eyes drift closed in contentment and found herself nodding off, lulled by motion of the sleigh. The shrill whine of a train whistle signaling its departure from the Dusty Hollow station broke her reverie, and she opened her eyes just in time to see them passing through town without stopping. She sat up and craned her neck to see the saloon disappear behind them.
"Willow? Where are we going?"
"Farmer Gray's. There's a birthday party. But not one with hats."
Tara blinked several times and shook her head. Having become accustomed to the redhead's nonsensical sleep-babble, she briefly wondered if Willow had fallen asleep while driving, but even as the thought crossed her mind, she noticed green eyes sparkling at her playfully.
"We don't know a Farmer Gray," she replied, yawning and laying her head back down, her heavy lidded eyes watching the landscape fly by as Willow urged Miss Horsey on faster.
Willow laughed softly and squeezed their joined hands before letting go to steer the sleigh north, past the site where the mayor's mansion had previously stood; where Donnie and Faith's half-finished future home was now rising in its place. They continued on for another mile, turning again just past the grove of trees that hid Tara's favorite place in town. The blonde smiled at the thought of the pond, and of her first time sharing it with Willow several months prior, when the weather was still warm enough in the daytime to swim. The pond was not large, and would be frozen solid now.
"Are we going skating?" she asked.
"No!" Willow laughed.
Tara grinned into Willow's neck and draped an arm across the redhead's lap, her hand squeezing the slim hip and snuggling closer. The snowfall had dwindled over the course of their trip, finally ceasing altogether. They slowed as they reentered a sparse wood, the road barely wide enough for the small sleigh. Despite their proximity to the pond, Tara rarely ventured past it, and she curiously looked around at the unfamiliar scenery. A few minutes later they entered a clearing, and her eyes widened in wonder.
The circular area, seventy-five or so feet in diameter, seemed carved out of the forest. Ponderosa pines thick with snow soared up over a hundred feet tall, and Tara's eyes followed them up to where the clouds had parted. Their tips formed a halo through which they could see the moon and stars shining brightly down on them. With the sleigh stopped there was utter silence, and Tara felt an overwhelming spiritual presence, as though entering the most magnificent cathedral. Her eyes misted at the magical beauty of the place, and wildly sought out Willow's to see if they held the same awe.
Willow had slipped out of the sleigh and walked to the center of the clearing, where she turned to face Tara.
"I thought the house would go right about here," she said, pointing a little to one side. "Nothing too fancy to start, but Xander's gonna help me build it come spring, and Faith already offered us some of the stuff they salvaged from the mansion. She mentioned something about a parlor stove, though I don't know if we'll even have a parlor. I guess we could put it in the bedroom and call it a bedroom stove-not to be confused with a cook stove, though she said we can have one of those too."
Willow became increasingly flustered when Tara sat motionless in the sleigh, staring at her and saying nothing.
"Over there we can build a barn for Miss Horsey and Doll...and more if you want, but we can always add on later...to the house too. And there's plenty of land closer to the pond for a garden, but I thought we could grow some herbs over here maybe?"
Tara stood up, letting the blanket fall in a heap at her feet, and stepped out of the sleigh. When she neared Willow, the redhead could see unshed tears shimmering in her eyes.
"Oh God, Tara, I'm sorry! I know we already have a home, and I should have asked what you wanted first. I didn't think-"
Willow got no farther in her apology before Tara threw herself into her love's arms, toppling them over. The redhead lay on her back, barely noticing the snow slipping down the collar of her shirt as she met Tara's frenzied kiss with equal passion.
"I love you, Willow, I love you so much," the blonde murmured, hugging Willow fiercely and repeating her entreaty amid a continuing assault of kisses.
After many minutes they lay side-by-side, looking up at the stars.
"I want a big kitchen," Tara said happily.
"Then you shall have one," Willow stated.
"Big enough to make Christmas dinner for everyone next year?"
"You will have the biggest kitchen in Dusty Hollow," Willow agreed. "It'll be so big you can fit a whole herd of cows in there."
"Hmm," Tara mused. "Maybe not that big. But big enough to cook an enormous turkey and lots of yams and green beans and still have space for canning and-"
"What about the pie?" Willow asked, leaning up on one elbow to pout at Tara. "There has to be pie."
"There will be," Tara concurred, pulling Willow down to nestle in the crook of her arm. "Apple pie, mincemeat pie, wild blueberry pie-"
"Pumpkin! I want a pumpkin pie...and coffee! Lots and lots of coffee."
"Of course. I wouldn't think of serving you pie without coffee."
"And we'll hang stockings by the fire and roast chestnuts-"
"We could have a kitten!" Tara exclaimed.
"A kitten, a dog, a camel...whatever you want," Willow grinned at Tara's exuberance. "The Summers' barn cat has a litter every year; I'm sure they'd give us one. We could name her...Miss Kitty."
Miss Horsey neighed loudly and shook her head, causing both women to burst out laughing. They reluctantly left their bed of snow and climbed back into the sleigh, wrapping themselves in the blanket and each other's arms. Willow steered carefully back down the lane, but before she could direct them towards town, Tara laid a hand on Willow's, stilling the reins.
"Let's not go back just yet. It's a beautiful night for a drive."
Willow nodded her understanding, and twin smiles spread from cheek to rosy cheek as she snapped the reins and they set out over the open plains, following the moon and their own desires. They had all the time in the world for sleeping, but the dreams they shared as they traversed the pristine snow were all the ones they would make come true.