S5.E6.x (taking place before and after the events of "Family")
Warnings: some mild sexual innuendo
Pairings: season 4 - Tara & Willow, Anya & Xander, Buffy & Riley

Willow, Tara, and other characters from the television shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were created and are owned by Joss Whedon.

"You were quiet tonight, baby."

"Was I?" Tara smoothed the tank top over her torso. A pair of boxers completed her bedtime ensemble. She climbed into her bed, pulling the blanket up over herself. Willow followed her, in a flannel pajama shirt and a pair of pale blue cotton panties for a bottom, her hand falling naturally to Tara's hip. "I guess I still had a lot on my mind."

"About your family?" Willow murmured into the back of her neck, stifling a yawn. It was just a little after midnight but it had been a very eventful couple of days, between the attack in the Magic Box by the Leiach demons and the confrontation with Tara's family yesterday, the big drama of Tara not turning into a demon, and finally tonight's surprise party. Perhaps the party had been one thing too many, but after seeing the look of first shock then delight on Tara's face as they entered the Bronze, Willow had no doubt all the work and effort she had put into the evening for her sweetheart was more than worthwhile. Before she could stop herself the yawn came out, twice as wide for being stifled earlier.

Tara giggled as Willow's yawn tickled at the baby-fine hairs at the nape of her neck. She pulled the bed sheet over them as they mutually molded themselves into a Willow-spooning-Tara position, wordlessly signaling sleep rather than the half-drape Willow-blanket that signaled something else, though Willow wrapped her limbs around Tara, which left the door open for more. "Um, yes… about my family." She knew from the severity of the yawn that Willow was seconds from falling asleep, so she didn't follow-up to clarify the shift in meaning the term had taken on since yesterday.

The truth was, since her father, Donnie and Beth had gotten back into the camper and left Tara to degenerate in her wicked ways with her unnatural friends, she had given her surviving blood relations little more than a passing second thought. Her thoughts instead were with her mother. Did you know, before you passed? Have you forgiven him? The Lord and Lady keep you, Mama.

Looking back at her childhood, she now felt dim-witted for not realizing that not once had she seen her mother's demon surface despite her father's dire predictions, even during those precious stolen times they had sat in the attic together by the secret, dim light of candles, her mother teaching her the basic principles of their religion and craft. At the time, her father had owed that fact up to the success of the "cure"—setting her mother and herself, when she was old enough, to work, practically every single hour on some household chore or farming labor when he couldn't supervise the behavior of his wife and daughter himself.

"The idle hour belongs to the demon."

Mama's life should have been very different. Did he love you, in his own way? I'm not sure he ever loved me.

The weight of the thought felt like it could crush her. At that moment, she didn't know if this sudden knowledge about the man her father was was any more preferable to the fear, humiliation, and shame of believing she had a feral demon inside, lying in wait to take over her life, mind, body and soul. Tara took a deep breath then consciously forced it from her lungs, along with that train of thought from her mind. She was determined to think only of good things like the family she had now and the home she had made for herself with the girl currently cocooning her as much with an aura of warmth and protection as with her small body. Tara's gaze fell to the slim flannel-encased arm that lay across her ribcage, and she thought of what Willow had just said.

Had she been quiet tonight? She hadn't thought so. She had expressed herself more tonight than at any time she could recall. At first, the amount of conversation buzzing around her had been a little overwhelming…

"Hey, while Ahn's at the bar haggling over the next round, I heard this joke about a succubus and a vengeance demon."

"Oh, this should be good. Did you get this hanging out at Willy's during amateur stand-up hour again, or is this one from personal experience?"

Giles chuckled. "Ah, good question, Buffy."

"Hey! Who's telling the joke here?"

"Give him a chance, Buff. Xander can be really funny, sometimes without even trying." Willow slurped on the last of her first drink.

"Uh, thanks, Will… I think. And what's up with you, Slay-Stuff? You've been all extra bold and spicy with the sardonic wit lately. You're not gonna stake me next, are you? Cause, you know, the quipping, usually a prelude to the…" Xander made a staking motion with his fist, "woody goodness action."

Willow snorted, spilling some of her drink on herself. Even Tara smirked a little as she patted her girlfriend on the back.

"Wrong party, Xan," Buffy pointed out the obvious.

"Yeah, that didn't come out right. But you know what I mean. You feeling okay, Buffster? You've been kinda short with everyone lately."

Buffy's eyes narrowed. Willow chortled as she turned to Tara and whispered, "See what I mean?"

"You're not going to help him?"

"Oh, he'll be alright."

"Uh, that didn't come out right, either. That really didn't come out right. For the record, I like my limbs. I'm attached to them—literally, of course, but emotionally too. And I'm allergic to pain. So please don't dismember me. What I meant to say is," and Xander instantly became serious, "are you alright, Buff? You seem a little tense lately." They all turned their attention to Buffy.

A brief look of panic crossed Buffy's face before she recovered. "Oh… Yeah. I guess I have been kinda snippy gal lately. Sorry, Xan. I've just had a lot on my mind." She glanced briefly at Giles.

"Yeah? Care to bend your best friend's ear about it?" Xander asked around a mouthful of peanuts.

"Uh, not really."

"You sure?"

Tara elbowed Willow in the ribs. "OW!"

Tara whispered, "Sorry. I just thought maybe this would be a good time for you to ask Buffy to, um, go with you to the women's room?"

"Huh? Why would I do that?"

"Well, because Xander can't?"

It took Willow just a second more to cotton on. "Oh, right." She turned back to Buffy. "Hey, Buff—"

"Yes. Sure. No. No talking necessary. I'm sorry, Xan. Really. Continue. Please. With your demon love story."

"Okay. Let me clarify. It's a joke. Not a love story. And it's not an anecdote. Definitely NOT from personal experience this time…"

"Are you sure you don't want to go to the women's room with me, Buffy?" Willow blurted out.

"Huh? Why would I do that?"

Willow gave Tara an 'I tried' look.

Giles gently interrupted. "This doesn't have anything to do with the, ah, new training schedule I've put you on, does it, Buffy?"

Buffy's face was momentarily brilliant with relief. "Well, since you mentioned it, Giles…"

"We'll discuss it later."

"Great. Thank you, Boss-Watcher-Man, Sir."

Giles' trademark annoyed scowl crossed his features before he suddenly visibly brightened. "You will all excuse me, won't you? I believe I see Ms. Olivetti. One of our finest patrons." They all turned to look at the attractive middle-aged brunette who frequented The Magic Box. The casual witch always took the time to talk to Tara when the girl was helping out at the store those times she dropped by under the pretense of shopping, but actually just to flirt with the bachelor librarian-turned-shopkeeper. He reminded her of the Taster's Choice™ actor from the commercials in the 80s. "I really should go greet her." Giles stood up to Xander's wolf whistle. "Really, Xander." He left the table.

Tara would have to see the older woman herself to thank her for stopping by. She had also briefly seen Sandra earlier, as well as a few members of the campus Wicca group and the Lesbian and Gay Alliance. She wanted to share time with everyone who dropped by for her sake, but later. At the moment, she was, a little surprisingly, too comfortable exactly where she was. "So, h-how about that joke, Xander?"

"Well, okay. Here goes. Mr. Dixon is a 90-year old man who just married a 20-year old girl named—"

"Hey, whatcha guys talking about?" Dawn plopped herself down into Anya's seat.

"Nothing you need to know about, Annoying One." Buffy's frown was back. "What time is it, anyway? Shouldn't Mom have come to pick you up by now?"

"Um, Buffy, it's only 8:30. Dawn should be okay still, shouldn't she? Your mom w-won't be expecting her yet?"

"Oh. Sorry. Force of habit. But you're going home in 30 minutes if I have to take you home myself."

"Gee, Buffy. 9:00 is still kinda early. You'd miss the party games if you left then," Willow said.

"Th-There's party games?"

"Of course there's party games! To celebrate your big two-oh, you definitely need party games!"

"Ooo, I want to stay for the party games!"

"NO!" Buffy and Willow said simultaneously.

"Why can't I?"

"Uh, Dawnie, the games are geared more toward twenty-something-year olds."

"Well, you and Buffy are still teenagers."

"Well, er, um…"

"Hey, yeah, why is that, Tara? You're like, a whole year older than us. You weren't left back a year in school, were you?"

"Of course she wasn't, Xander!" Willow's eyes flashed dangerously at him before turning to Tara. "You weren't, were you, baby?"

"Uh, no." Tara demurely lifted her drink to take a sip from the straw. She brought the beverage up to her face much closer than necessary.

"So spill, witch girl. What's the why with that?" Buffy prompted.

Tara felt a little hot at all the attention. "W-Well, my birthday is the m-middle of October, obviously. Our, um, school district in Alabama? Th-they admitted students by age. So I w-was too young by a couple w-weeks to start w-with the other kids around m-my age."

"See? She's no dummy." Willow patted her knee under the table.

"Um, thank-you, sweetie."

"Sweetie, huh? Cute! You two are SO CUTE together, you know that? So what other cute little nicknames do you have for each other?"

"Oh, well…" Willow frowned. As close as Buffy and she were, Dawn was also kind of like her annoying little sister by extension, though she thankfully had none of the actual big-sister responsibility.

"Um, uh, well…" Tara had a long time ago accepted that not everyone was comfortable with gay people. It wasn't her place to educate someone as young as Dawn about it, especially when Buffy might still be a little uncomfortable about her relationship with Willow.

Sure enough… "DAWN! It is SO not appropriate for you to be asking that question!"

"Yeah, Dawnie, you know, I think maybe…" Willow paused in the middle of agreeing with her best friend when the nuances of Buffy's words hit her. "Well… Why not Buffy? You don't still have a problem with me and Tara—?"

"What? Why that… No! Of course not, Will! And when did I ever have a problem with you and Tara?" The two witches exchanged the briefest of looks, but Buffy caught it. Her face fell in a frown. "Really? You think that? Did I… really seem to…"

"M-Maybe just a little bit, Buffy. Just in the beginning?" Tara tried to mitigate.

Buffy's lower lip trembled. "I'm like, the worst friend, ever. I make Xander shriek like a little girl…"

"Hey!" Xander protested.

"…I'm ungrateful to Giles for trying to make me the best Chosen One I can be, and I make you two uncomfortable about being out and loud and proud the way you should be. Out of Tara's dorm room, too, I mean."

"Hey!" Willow protested. Tara blushed.

"You more often than not suck at the big sister thing, too," Dawn offered.

"But I've gotten better, haven't I? I mean, I try to be support-o girl. It's just that, 12 year olds—boundaries, necessary, right?"

"I'm almost 14 years old, Buffy!"

"Ignoring you."

"What else is new?" Dawn glowered, not noticing Tara's sympathetic smile. They were strangely in a similar situation. Tara would never volunteer it to Willow, but even the one year age difference only served to emphasize that for whatever reason, she wasn't quite on the peer level of the original Scooby gang, or even Anya, for that matter, despite the fact that their respective relationships with Willow and Xander had begun almost at the same time.

"But, I mean, if you and Tara are okay with it, I guess I should be too. Okay, witchy duo. So what other kinds of pet names do you use for each other? You can skip the 'sweeties' and 'cuties', just go straight to 'Goddess of Honeypots' and the other good stuff." Buffy smirked.

"Er…" "Um…" They really weren't that loud, were they?

"So, Xan, that joke…?" Buffy turned glibly to him.

"Uh, well… Actually, the joke is kinda geared toward twenty-year olds, too."

"Fine! I'll go home if none of you want me here." Dawn got up. Buffy's face lit up.

The image of the young girl standing up to Tara's father during the confrontation at The Magic Box was still fresh in Tara's mind. "Hey, Dawn, come on. I want you here. I'm sure there's something we can all do until your Mom comes to pick you up…?" Buffy's face fell.

They were interrupted by a large tray carrying several drinks being slid onto the table, pushing the empty glasses to the side.

Slap! "OUCH!" Xander held the back of his head.

"Thank you very much for leaving me there to carry the drink tray by myself, Xander!"

"You know," Tara said softly to Willow, "I'm beginning to think half the bruises you guys come home with after a night patrolling come from each other and not the vamps." Willow just smiled.

"Hey, you're small, but wiry and strong. I figured you could handle it."

Willow handed Tara her drink and took another for herself from the tray. "So, Anya, how'd that whole haggling-for-alcohol thing go?"

"Your drink and Tara's were free."

"Really?" Willow was suitably impressed. "It actually worked? Cool!"

"Not so cool for Buffy or Xander. The price on theirs doubled."

"No freaking way."

"Yes freaking way, Xander. Apparently saving the lives of the patrons as well as the hired help of this fine establishment countless number of times stands for nothing compared to the modicum of property damage and personal injury, death, or maiming incurred during the 95%-of-the-time-successful rescue attempts!" Anya's voice steadily rose as she attempted one final time to move the scowling barkeep.

"That, or possibly actually being the cause of some of said crises?" Willow muttered.

"What's that, Miss I-was-a-teenage-dominatrix-vampire-in-a-parallel-universe-who-couldn't-keep-my-teeth-out-of-any-bared-neck-I-saw-during-my-brief-visit-of-this-one?"

The resulting glarefest then Anya's presence kept them from ever getting back to Xander's joke, something which was teasing now at Tara's brain. After Joyce had come shortly after 9:00 to collect her youngest daughter, the group broke up and mingled among the other non-Scooby attendees. Tara did, however, manage to spend more focused time with each of them later.

She spoke briefly with Mr. Giles before he, too left, shortly after Joyce and Dawn, amid Xander's innuendo that there was perhaps a reason behind their closely staggered exits and Buffy's resulting scowl. Tara intended to talk to him the next time she was at the Magic Box. She still needed to properly apologize for not approaching him earlier about her problem. She desperately wanted to let him know how much she respected him and his capabilities as a scholar and expert in the mystical world, her misguided attempt to keep her family's secret to the contrary.

Anya tried to engage her in a round of "What Kind Of Inner Demon Are You?" but it hit a little too close to home, still. After, her attempt to explain the insect reflection joke fell flat. Not that it was that funny to begin with, but Anya's literal-mindedness made all humor based on metaphor doubly doomed to failure. Still, Tara decided she liked the ex-Vengeance demon, despite the rivalry with Willow for Xander's affection the two seemed to perversely relish. The things about Anya that made her grate against Willow's nerves—her directness, and self-centeredness—those same things were what Tara actually secretly admired about Anya, maybe because they were traits she felt she could never own herself. They weren't necessarily bad traits to have, and Anya made the most of them. There was also some common ground. Not quite knowing who they were as persons, yet. That Anya actually had been a demon for a thousand years, and her almost 20-year old belief that she would be turning into one. Or, maybe just the fact that both of them came into the Slayer party late, so to speak, as invited guests. But Tara didn't mind being considered more or less a Willow accessory, for now. She knew it would just take a little time.

Xander, like Anya, had accepted her immediately and with ease. Most of his evening was spent by Anya's side, though Tara's overt and provenly consistent lesbianism prompted Anya into granting her immediate approval to Xander asking Willow's girlfriend for a slow turn on the dance floor. One would think the Xander/Willow fluking incident might be an inappropriate story to entertain Tara with, but she laughed the whole time. As their dance ended, Xander presented his second gift to top the scented bath oils he and Anya had given her as her birthday present earlier. "You and Will look great together," he said, smiling, as the last of the song died away. Awkwardly adding, "and I don't mean that in the usual 'can-I-watch?' guy-thing kind of way," did nothing to lessen the value of what Xander said. Tara assured him of that with her answering half-grin.

It was impossible to not like Xander. Remarkably little was hidden behind his outward jocularity. What was was nothing dark or threatening. A little insecurity, maybe, at not having any special power or skill to offer when the fight against the evil of the Hellmouth exceeded the capabilities of a lone slayer and her watcher, unlike the spells of a witch or the vast knowledge of a thousand-year-old ex-Vengeance demon. So, he did what he could—the research he complained vocally about, but was actually glad for as it gave him a way to contribute something other than the occasional axe-wielding which he was mediocre at, at best, or the thankless but necessary chore of cleaning up and fixing all the damaged furniture after the fighting was over. Xander's insecurity was almost certainly compounded by being the only young male of the gang since Oz had left—Riley didn't count, as he seemed to prefer being independent from Team Slayer. The fact that Tara tipped the scale even further toward the double-X side of things, however, didn't seem to factor in Xander's appreciation for her at all, for which she was extremely grateful. She easily saw how Willow could have had feelings for him. In fact, a different life, a different world, with someone as kind and generous and funny as Xander, even she, perhaps, could—

Okay, so it wouldn't ever happen that way. They hadn't talked about it yet, but one day soon, Tara would satisfy her curiosity and ask Willow about the whole muscles and penis thing. Or maybe she could ask Anya. No. She couldn't ask Anya. It might get back to Willow. Anya would definitely let it slip to Willow. Better to just ask her recently gay girlfriend herself.

Of course, there was also Buffy, though Tara couldn't imagine ever having that kind of talk with the Slayer.

The conversation with Buffy had been the one she had dreaded the most. It wasn't for the fact that Buffy was Willow's best and closest friend, that the two were as close as sisters. If it were only that, the initial freak-out Buffy had at learning her best friend had switched teams was something Tara knew the two could and would work out. It had more to do with the residual effects of Buffy being the Slayer and Tara believing, up until yesterday, that she would be turning into a demon today. Part of her still couldn't not believe it, couldn't let go of what her father had taught her for the eighteen years before she came to Sunnydale. In fact, what she had been doing since she left her father's house, the lies, deflections, and cover-ups she had needed to commit to keep her secret, culminating in the fiasco of her curse yesterday... didn't that just prove the point? She couldn't deny it. Beth and her father had been right about that. She was a selfish person, had acted badly, regardless of her reasons, and bad people didn't deserve so much kindness or forgiveness.

The talk with Buffy had started as Willow, Xander, and Anya had begun to group-dance to a hard techno number, leaving Tara and Buffy to hold their table. They watched Xander and Willow spasm to the driving beats as Anya gamely tried to mimic their less challenging moves, mistaking them for typical young human behavior.

"Happy birthday, Tara."

Tara turned as Buffy moved into the seat next to hers. Riley had run into another graduate student from the reorganized Psychology department and was having a beer with him, leaving Buffy free for a tête-à-tête with the older girl. "Thanks, Buffy. It is. A happy one, I mean."

They watched their friends in a companionable silence a few moments before Buffy mused, "You were pretty surprised, huh?"

Tara nodded shyly. "W-Willow had me believing w-we w-were just going to have a quiet dinner together."

"Not disappointed, were you?"

"No. Not at all." Tara hesitated before adding, "This was, um, my first, you know? First actual birthday party, I mean." She ended with a blush.

"Really?" Buffy was genuinely surprised, before recalling Tara's father. "Oh." It made sense.

They continued watching as a particularly ambitious dance move by Xander resulted in him careening into the six-foot linebacker-type behind him.

Tara broke the silence before it could become awkward. "Buffy? I just w-wanted you to know how sorry I am, again, for yesterday?"

"Pfft, forget about it, Tara. Wonky spells, surprise demon attacks, general mayhem and trashed furniture—all part of the Slayer benefits package."

Xander and the football player were talking and gesturing to each other, rather animatedly. "Um, yes, I did kind of notice. Still…" She found she couldn't continue to look at Buffy, and hung her head. "W-What I did really complicated things for you? Made it harder? You w-wouldn't have had as much of the violence and broken things if it w-weren't for me and my family and the spell I did." It could've been the attack that killed you. "You… You could've been really hurt."

Buffy's eyes were on the dance floor and Xander's new acquaintance now poking her friend in his chest. Xander clutched at the spot the fat forefinger had jabbed. She inwardly sighed, weighing if she should intervene. "Really, Tara, I'm kind of used to being the lotto prize every big, medium-sized, and half-pint demon trying to make its mark in this town goes after." Buffy paused and looked at the other girl. "In fact, I prefer it that way."

Buffy held her gaze. There was more. She wanted Tara to realize it, and say it out loud. "I put you in danger. And worse. Willow. I put Willow in danger. If anything had happened to her… And Xander and Anya, and… and Dawn. Dawn was there. She could've been… Oh Goddess." Tara's vision blurred. She was tearing. "I don't know w-why you didn't let my father take me."

"Because it would've broken Will's heart." Buffy said. She took a sip of her drink, as much to give herself a moment as to wet her mouth. "And Dawn's. You probably noticed, my sister's kind of attached to you." She placed her empty glass back down on the table. Anya was now in the gorilla's face, Willow backing her. "Plus, like I said, you are family, Tara."

Tara hadn't looked up. An old adage came to mind. "'You can't choose your family.'"

"Why not?" Buffy asked, in all seriousness.

Tara looked at Buffy squarely. "What happened yesterday will never happen again."

Buffy smirked. "Oh, so you're promising no more demon attacks and wonky spells and busted furniture? What? You know something Giles doesn't?" Her eyes widened in mock horror. "It's not another prophecy is it? Because if it's another prophecy…?"

Tara smiled and ducked her head. "No. I mean, no more secrets."

Buffy's smile lessened a little. "That's just as hard, sometimes."

Tara hesitated, wondering if it was her place. "Did you w-want to talk about it w-with someone—" Tara paused. She had been about to say 'someone from the outside.' "Did you want to talk about it, Buffy? Um, experienced secret-keeper, right here," she offered, smiling awkwardly.

Buffy rolled her eyes at her friend's self-deprecating dig. "No. It's all right, but thanks." She looked out into the dance floor. Amazingly, Mr. Muscles had backed down to Anya. "That woman is scary amazing,"Buffy muttered to herself. She turned back to Tara. "There is one thing I really need to know, though." Buffy was smiling cheekily. "Who picked the matching outfits for you two tonight?"

"Oh." Tara's forehead crinkled into a frown. "I don't know… I think w-we each picked out our own. They just turned out to be similar, somehow. Kind of, um, like synchronicity?"

"Oh" Buffy said.

"Y-You don't like them?"

"Well, they're a step up I guess from the cartoon character print shirts that make up half of Will's wardrobe."

"Oh… Is there something wrong w-with Willow's casual clothes?"

Buffy pursed her lips for a second before replying, "Uh, no. Not at all. It's fantastic that you two are so in synch with each other, you even dress alike without even consulting! It must've been great, you know, one of those perks of being gay, huh? Suddenly, uh, realizing you could potentially double your wardrobe with the right girl!"

Tara inwardly grinned at the Buffy-babble but managed to keep her poker face until Buffy looked sheepishly away. The skills she'd learned those eighteen years deflecting Dad's or Donnie's attention were as sharp as ever.

The rest of the evening had passed uneventfully. At the end of the night, Xander and Anya had given them a ride home and helped them take Tara's presents up to her dorm room. Willow was like a little child as she looked through Tara's birthday loot. A little while later, they were settling into bed.

With the excitement of all that had happened the past two days finally waning, Tara had the chance to ponder it all. She concluded, as she lay her arm over Willow's around her chest, that this was the benefit of having birthday parties rather than something more intimate, like the romantic dinner with Willow she had been expecting, or a shared bubble bath or hot monkey sex. This had been her first time, but she caught on quickly. Things like the party tonight were about one's relationships with others, and how those relationships define an individual. Each person was, when you got down to it, just the juncture of several relationships. The more interstices that bound one to others, the richer the life. Tara felt blessed to have so much family at the tender age of twenty.

Willow's arm tightened around her torso and her thigh pressed more firmly against Tara's leg. She nuzzled through the blond hair tucked behind Tara's ear. Tara felt Willow's front press up against her behind, and it was enough to stir her desire. Of course, hot monkey sex after the group get-together with the woman you love who could have you moaning six ways to Sunday had its own specific charm, too. Her fingers interlaced with Willow's just underneath her breast. She raised the delicate hand to her lips to kiss Willow's fingertips then guided it back down beneath her breast, then further down to her waist. She stopped there, wondering if they should go further tonight. She was suddenly not feeling so tired after all. "Willow?" she whispered.

"Tara… The monkey queen is eating all the peanut butter…"

The right corner of Tara's mouth curled up as she settled back against Willow's sleeping form. There was plenty of time for the other kinds of celebrations. In fact, they had all the time in the world.