"I'm Tara," the blonde introduced herself with a glint in her eye.
"I'm Fred. W-w-well, actually Winnifred, but all my friends call me Fred. N-n-not that you're my friend. I mean, I'm sure that you're a nice person, but ..." Dammit, Fred cursed herself, she hadn't stuttered in a long time. What about this woman was throwing her off?
Tara smiled gently and covered Fred's thin hand with her own. "It's ok, Fred. I understand."
"Can I buy you another drink?" Tara ask, looking down at the drink sitting in front of the other woman. "Gin and tonic?"
Fred nodded, ducked her head, and blushed.
Tara signaled the bartender to bring Fred another drink on her tab. She then tilted her head to the left and studied this unique creature before her. Before, she had thought this woman reminded her of someone - maybe her slight stature and attempts to fade into the background reminded her of Willow when they had first met, but she knew now that wasn't it. There was something about this woman that was both more graceful and more nervous than she had ever seen Willow.
"Dammit, Winifred," Fred silently berated herself. "You're not a stuttering fool just returning from Pylea. You're an intelligent, strong woman who can fight demons every day. Earlier this evening, you participated in revenge on the man who sent you to another dimension. You can talk to this strange, confident woman."
Fred finally looked up, suddenly brave. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Why did you come sit with me? I don't know you, do I? From ... before?"
"Before?" Tara asked, tilting her head to the left again, this time in confusion. "No, I haven't met you before. I don't spend a lot of time in LA and I've never been to Texas, so I think, unfortunately, this is our first meeting."
Fred's eyes widened in surprise. "How did you ...? Are you a witch or something?"
Tara's head shot up. "Why would you ask that? I can tell by that hint of an accent, that's all."
Tara made a policy of avoiding lying outright about her identity. It was hard enough traveling from city to city, working with fledgling covens to link them strongly to the Earth before they lost control of the Power. She just couldn't hold up a double identity as well. Misleading people, however, was a part of the job.
Fred grinned quickly, still not confident, but suddenly more comfortable. It was the first time Tara had seen the thus-far quiet young woman smile and she blinked in surprise. Who knew that a face that small could be hiding a smile that enormous?
"Oh, don't worry about it, Tara. If you're a witch, that's ok," Fred said, now feeling a little more like she was on home territory. "I deal with stranger things every single day than a beautiful witch who wants to buy me a drink."
"Are you serious?" Tara looked around quickly to see if there was anyone at the tables close to theirs. Finding the bar even emptier than she had remembered, she turned back to Fred.
Fred shrugged, blushing a little and periodically looking down at her chipped fingernails, but standing her ground.
"Yes, I'm a witch. I don't know how you knew that, but I ..." Tara's face broke into a radiant smile. "Wait, did you say 'beautiful?'"
Fred's blush deepened and she shook her head noncommitally. "So ... a witch? How long have you been a witch? I mean, how long have you been practicising?"
Suddenly, Tara flashed back to a conversation far too much like this one ...
"I think if they saw a w-w-witch they would... run away."
"Yeah. So how long have you been practicing?"
"Always. I mean, since I was little... My mom used to... she had a lot of power. Like you."
Fred looked on at the pretty stranger, concerned at the mood shift her seemingly innocuous question had caused. The blonde sitting across from her had apparently been bothered by her question, but Fred couldn't figure out why.
"Tara?" she asked, curiously. "Are you ok? I mean ... I didn't want to break any rules here, I was just curious, you know, about the whole witch thing. I mean, I've met witches before ... there was that pretty red-haired one at the hotel when I first came back ... and Angel seems to know a lot of them, and Wesley certainly knows his magic, but I was just ..."
Tara's head snapped around, bringing her out of her trance-like state in a hurry. "Did you say Angel? And Wesley? And what's this about a pretty red-haired witch?"
"Angel is my boss," Fred stated simply. "He saved me from ..."
"From what?" Tara urged gently.
"Pylea ..." Fred whispered, drawing her arms into her body and hugging herself tightly.
"Pylea ..." Tara breathed. "Angel ... Wesley ..." her voice broke. "Willow?"
"Willow, yes! That was her name," Fred smiled. "About a year and a half ago, she came to the hotel ..." Stopping, she realized what had been said. "Wait? You know Angel? Wesley? Willow?"
At the sound of her former lover's name, Tara winced visibly. "I knew Willow, a long time ago. I never knew Wesley or Angel, but ... yes, I've heard of them." Sighing, she remembered her former jealousy of the places they vacated, right in the middle of the group that she so greatly longed to belong to.
"I never knew them."
Fred looked up, a sudden realization lighting in her eyes. "Wait ... YOU'RE Tara? THAT Tara?"
Tara became suddenly engrossed in the rings of condensation on the table, wiping lines across the surface in rapid strokes. Nodding sadly, she sighed.
"I suppose I am."