Summary: Tara reflects on her new friendship with Willow.
Rating: T - Teen
Setting/background: Shortly after "Hush"
Notes: Thoughts in italics.
Feedback: Please. Constructive criticism especially appreciated.

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


EMBRACE ME, MY SWEET

4.10.x

If she does it again, I'll scream.

Okay, so I won't scream, but I might… I might kiss her. And that would be ten times worse. That would be the end of everything. But I don't know if I could stop myself, she's so sweet. So please don't do it again, Willow. It's getting so hard to be around you…

It's probably normal to her. There are people like that. All touchy-feely—no, I don't mean it like that. That sounds kinda… creepy, in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way. And she's definitely not that. More like affectionate. Yes, that's what she is. Naturally affectionate. I mean, not everyone comes from a home where the only reason you reach out to touch someone is to slap them upside the head for giving lip, or for looking at you funny, or for nothing at all.

Face it, Tara, this is your fault. Again. You're the damaged one here, not her. She's not… unnatural, like you. She's normal, not like you.

She's just being herself. She's just being sweet. Sweet Willow.

Justin was sweet, too. But Justin's a boy, and boys sure as hell cannot be sweet. If they are, they get the shit beat out of them, just like what happened to Justin. That changed him. And I heard the ones who did it were so proud of themselves, fixing the sweet boy… Was Donnie really one of them? Gods, say he wasn't. But Goddess help me, it wouldn't be a shock... Justin stays to himself now, working at his mother's video store, turning from people, trying to hide the scars on his face. Oh gods, thank you for letting me escape that place, before they could fix me!

That's what you have to remember. You got out. So don't screw it up now, just because you can't keep a handle on your hormones. Straight Willow. Remember that. She probably acts that way around all her friends.

Lucky friends. I'm her friend, too, aren't I?

But her other friends don't go all lunatic, letting it—wanting it to mean more than it does, more than she intends.

I'm the one with the problem. Problems. Plural. Multiple issues, can't forget, Tara.

But I can't be reading this all wrong, can I? Why does she let it linger? Sometimes I look at her and I find her eyes on me, like she's been watching me, looking at me. She looks away, embarrassed, about what? Could she be feeling something for me, too?

Damnit, Tara! There you go again. The girl is straight. Unrequited crush on her best guy friend until she was fifteen. Cool guitar player boyfriend. Or ex-boyfriend… Besides, what would she ever see in you? Fat, awkward, stuttering, clumsy Tara. Still, when she looks at me like that, I wonder…

Focus! I have to focus! She's not sweet, not like that. Don't mess up this chance to have a real friendship, with a nice girl, someone you might even be able to cast with. Haven't had that since Mama…

Oh, Mama, I miss you so much.

I wish you were here still, so I could talk to you about all the things that happened since… I left them. I left Dad and Donnie. It was so hard, Mama. But I had to go. I'm not sure you would've understood, 'cause you always stayed, said you'd never leave, and you never did, not 'til the very end. But I had to get out of that place. Ever since you'd gone, things got so bad. And I… I did things. I hope—I pray you didn't see… I earned the things Dad said. I proved him right. I think I did it so I wouldn't feel so bad leaving. But it didn't work. I still feel bad.

I left while they were both at an auction weekend, so I'd have a couple of days. I used up everything I'd saved, first for the college applications, then for the board fees after I got accepted. I had to rent a box at the post office, after the first time I got sent mail from a university and Dad saw it before me. He was so angry, I felt it for days afterward. But it worked. No one knows I'm here. It's a good school, and I got a tuition scholarship. I know you'd be proud of me for that, at least.

I'm happy in California. I get lonely sometimes, but I'm making friends. There's this one girl… Her name is Willow. And she's a practicing witch, too. A few nights ago, the most terrifying then amazing thing happened to us. We came through okay, mostly because of her. She's amazing. So much power. And she has a generous heart, and I know you'd have loved her as much as I do.

Okay, maybe not so much the last part.

Remember how you'd always laugh when I said I'd never get married, but become an old maid and stay with you forever, and take care of you when you got old? You said I'd change my mind, eventually, when I'd gotten a little older, when I started getting boy-crazy, like Beth. Then later, after things started to get worse at home, you said, "Don't judge all men by your father, baby girl. He's had a hard time, and it's changed him. When you find the one man for you, you'll know what I'm talking about." I never got the chance to tell you, but it never happened, and I don't think it ever will.

Now I wish I'd told you, before… But I was a coward. I made excuses. I told myself you had your own problems, with your demon and Dad, then Donnie having his troubles at school, and him having to leave before graduating. Then you got sick, and I told myself it was too much to tell you about it, what with my own demon coming, to give you another burden to deal with. But those were all lies. I don't know if I'd have ever gotten the courage to tell you. I don't think I could've taken it if you didn't understand...

But at the very least, I wish you'd met Willow. I know you would've liked her, as a person. She's sweet, and smart, and beautiful, and funny and people are just naturally drawn to her like moths to a flame. She talks-gods, how she talks! Her voice fills up the time we spend together. She says she's shy, too, but I think she's just trying to make me feel better myself. It would be her way. It's never awkward with her. It's so easy to be with her… Except maybe when—

"Hey Tara!" A pink sleeve-encased arm slid around Tara's shoulders and squeezed.

Helpless to keep it bottled, Tara in her surprise gave a little shriek.

Willow settled on the loveseat next to Tara in the Stevenson study lounge, a little early—though not as early as Tara, apparently—for their coffee and study date. She lay her book bag, as usual crammed full of a variety of books for school and for witchcraft, down on the floor next to her. She cringed at the effects of her greeting on the shy blond. "Oh God, Tara, I'm sorry. What an idiot I am. You'd think I'd know better, sneaking up on someone like that after all the years I've lived in this town. Especially after what we just went through ourselves. C'mere." Willow fully squared herself to Tara then leaned in to give her friend a deliberate two-armed hug, her head falling on Tara's shoulder so the soft, crimson locks splayed against Tara's cheek, filling Tara's nostrils with the sweet smell of strawberry shampoo, her hands for a brief moment on Tara's shoulder blades.

Willow had no clue that this greeting was far more tortuous to her new friend than the earlier sneak-attack one-armed shoulder squeeze. Tara stiffened in her arms and Willow released the older girl from her embrace. Willow's brow furrowed at the pained expression the blond wore. "Hey, what's the what? You still achy from the other night?"

Tara closed her eyes in an effort to will her thundering heart to heel before it burst out of her chest. Failing miserably, she finally opened her eyes to see Willow's face, her green eyes wide with concern. "Y-y-yes. I-i-it's m-my back." Goddess, Tara! Get a grip! "I-it's just a-a little sore still?" Just don't offer to…

"Oh, hey, let me see if I can—" Willow shifted her weight, as if to get up. Or get closer.

"No!"

"—get you some ibuprofen—?" Willow's eyebrows shot up at Tara's vehement exclamation.

Tara shut her eyes again. Her face was hot with an embarrassed flush. Of course she wasn't going to offer you a massage, doofus. What strange planet do you come from where the normal response in a friendly conversation to saying your back hurts is, "hey, let me rub my hot little hands all over you and make you feel better than better?" "N-no thank you, W-Willow."

"How 'bout some tea, instead? That'd be better for you than coffee. It'll soothe your muscles."

"R-r-really. It's-it's not that bad."

A frown still lined Willow's face. "You sure? You practically shot out of your seat the first time."

"I-I'm sure."

Willow looked about. The room was fairly full for a Wednesday night with students scattered throughout, most reading quietly. "Darn. All the sofas are taken. Do you want to try the Embry lounge instead of here? It's usually a lot less crowded. It could be the smell of feet that place is cursed with. Then again, there is the smell of feet that place is cursed with. Or we can just go back to your dorm room? I'd offer mine, but Buffy might be—" She turned back to Tara and caught her breath when she saw how pale the other girl had become.

"No. Really, W-Willow." Goddess, Willow, please just let it go. "I-I took something for it already. Before I-I came down? I-It's just taking a b-bit to kick i-in." Another lie, a little one, to cover up the bigger one. Getting to be a habit. Tara bit her lip. Her eyes were stinging, her self-loathing producing hot tears that threatened to betray her deception to the gently frowning girl before her who had come to mean so much to her in such a short span of time. From the disappointing meetings at the interminably dull and pretentious Wicca group, to the terrifying hours just a few nights ago huddled together in the laundry room, hiding from the Gentlemen and their lackeys—episodes that were bearable because they had happened in the company of the quirky redhead.

"Okay." Willow paused. "But you'll let me know if it starts hurting again?" Although Tara nodded her assent, Willow's face fell. The girl was fighting back tears. "I am so sorry, Tara. I touched you without even thinking. I don't know why I do that, other than the obvious that I'm just a big doofy oaf. I guess growing up with Xander got me used to thinking it's alright to spontaneously jump your friends as a way of saying hello. Bad Willow! Keep your hands to yourself! But hey, at least it wasn't Buffy-then you might actually need a stretcher right now."

Hearing Willow shift the blame to herself for something that was so clearly Tara's own problem was the final straw. The tears came down, hot on her once again shame-flushed cheeks. "No, Willow! Don't… Don't do that to y-yourself. I-it w-wasn't anything y-you did." Tara sniffled, and started to go through her bag, looking for a tissue.

Willow produced one faster. Life-long allergies to various environmental irritants made one prepared for situations similar to this. So did having a huge heart. "Tara, hey, what's going on? What's wrong?" Willow's voice was soft and encouraging.

Here's your chance. To see what this friendship is made of. She won't disappoint you. You'll see.

Tara paused. The voice was different from the all-too familiar one at the back of her mind that she had grown up with, her usual interlocutor in the inner dialogues she conducted with herself when alone with her assorted demons. M-Mama?

But no one answered.

Willow could sense the conflict running through Tara. She waited, patiently, allowing the other girl to decide if this was something she wanted to talk about. Their friendship was fairly new, after all, though they had spent pretty much every free hour since the episode in the laundry room together. But that was an unusual circumstance to say the least, and pretty soon they'd need to slow down and re-evaluate the frantic pace of their intensely budding friendship. Still, she really hoped they'd eventually become permanent very good friends. Her former fellow witch and now pet rat Amy aside, she missed having someone she could talk to about practicing magic. And aside from the magics, Tara was a good listener and humored Willow even when in full babble-mode. Unlike Amy, who had no choice but to sit in her cage and listen to Willow ramble, Tara could decline her company but didn't. She was generous and patient by nature. But it was even more than that. Tara's sweet. She's a really sweet girl. It's time for me to return the favor and be a good listener for her—that is, if she wants me to be.

"M-my back's fine, W-Willow." Tara took a deep, shuddering breath. She hoped it would calm her stutter, because she didn't want her next statement to take any longer to get out than necessary. Still, she found she could only speak if she kept her eyes down. Her long blonde hair fell familiarly over her face, providing some comforting camouflage. "W-Willow, I'm gay." She paused, waiting for the impact of her revelation to hit her back.

It came in the form of a hand gently touching her chin and lifting. She looked into Willow's eyes as Willown gently tucked Tara's locks behind her ear. The corners of her lips tugged into a smile. "And?"

"A-and w-when you touch m-me like w-when you hugged m-me just now, I… I w-wonder if you w-would still do that if… if you knew."

"Tara, I have gay friends I've hugged before." She paused, doing a quick inventory of her previous friendships in high school. She realized with mild surprise that she had not gotten to know any of the friends who identified as gay more than casually, though she honestly could say that that hadn't been because of any awkwardness due to their sexuality. Looking back at it now, in fact, it seemed aside from an aunt and a couple of uncles she didn't really interact with regularly, the only possibly gay "person" she'd known with any depth was her Doppleganger. Though technically not a friend, the vampire had certainly pushed the bounds of friendly touching, forcing Willow to consider possibilities about herself she would never have imagined before the leather-clad, polysexual version of herself had intruded so spectacularly in her life and the lives of her friends. At first it had bothered her, but the passage of time had afforded her the advantage of perspective. One of the unforeseen consequences of the encounter was that now the thought of being with another woman did not freak her as much as it would someone with a virginal, so to speak, self-image of their sexuality like, say, Buffy. Twins and clones, that's another matter. Really not ready to go there, yet. Sooo, Tara likes girls. Hm. I wonder if she thinks I'm attractive? Okay, Rosenberg, now is so not the time to wig her with one of your neurotic insecure-me ego-trips. She's just shared this important knowledge with you, you are not going to ask her if you give good… uh, hug. Willow got a hold of herself before her internal rambling got the best of her. "Okay, now that I think about it, I think you're the first female friend I've had who's gay. But that's cool." Then the way the statement may have sounded struck Willow. "Oh, not like in a yay-middle-class-liberal-me-I've-got-a-lesbian-friend kind of way. Strictly in a yay-Tara-trusts-me-enough-to-share-this-crucial-part-of-herself-with-me kind of way." She paused, relatively satisfied with how the explanation had come out, before over-thinking it again. "That is why you told me, right? You said it so we can be honest with each other, as friends? I mean, you still want to, you know, be friends, right?"

Understatement of the year. But there was no longer any guilt in that thought. Having made peace with the big admission of her queerness to Willow, Tara found that she felt much more comfortable with the prospect of not allowing her crush get in the way of having a good friend in the younger girl. Perhaps one day, she might even be able to share her other big secret with the kind-hearted redhead. Tara let the knowledge be for the moment. Her lips curled into a one-sided grin. "Definitely."

"Great. Just be aware that being my friend automatically puts you in danger of spontaneous hugs and possibly even occasional pouncing as a recognized substitute for a normal 'hello.'" Willow checked her watch. "Did you want to grab a coffee at the cafeteria, or stay here to study and maybe look through these spell books to find one we can try to do together?"

"Um, how about coffee first, then come back here to study after?"

"Sounds like a plan." Willow stood and offered Tara her hand. Tara took it then found herself pulled into another two-armed Willow embrace, gentler this time, but much sweeter without the weight of hiding who she was from the affectionate redhead. Willow released her, grinning goofily. "See what I mean?"

Tara laughed as she settled her bag on her shoulder. "I see." They made their way slowly through the islands of couches and stuffed chairs to the exit. "So y-you have other gay f-friends? From high school, o-or here?"

"High school. And pretty much just casual friends now. We had this one friend who came out our junior year? Larry was a football jock. Before he came out, he was such a jerk. All with the ogling of the female flesh and inappropriate propositioning of anything without a Y chromosome. Then he came out, and you couldn't have met a nicer guy."

"So w-where is he now?"

"Um, see, it was graduation day. There was this giant snake, the mayor with his army of vamps, and an eclipse, and… well, things didn't go well for Larry." She paused, opening the door of the lounge. "We all miss him."

"Willow, w-why do, um, half the people in your stories end up dead, cursed, or trapped i-in a hell dimension?"

"Consistency?" Willow held the door open for Tara. Tara smiled her thanks. "Hey, Tara, let me ask you since I've already subjected you to a few, do I give good hug?"


END