a/n: I know the whole high school thing has been done many times before, but I couldn't help myself! The title and the lyrics are from "Gone, Gone, Gone," by Phillip Phillips. :)

When life leaves you high and dry,
I'll be at your door tonight.
If you need help, if you need help,
I'll shut down the city lights,
I'll lie, cheat, I'll beg and bribe,
To make you well, to make you well.

He grabs her hand as Mrs. Green starts shuffling the first grade class into line after lunch. She looks at his sticky fingers hooked around hers, and she wrinkles her nose, but he doesn't let go.

"Wait," he says, breathing warmly against her ear, and she waits, because she doesn't see why not.

He pulls her into the line, but they're at the end; it's a first for Tara. Mrs. Green starts to lead the class from the cafeteria. She disappears out the door, and she doesn't notice when Jackson ducks away, taking Tara with him. They hide behind the trash bins in the corner as everybody leaves.

"We'll get in trouble," Tara says, prodding his side with the hand he doesn't hold.

Jackson isn't worried, grinning, a gap in his smile from his missing front teeth, and Tara is jealous. She hasn't started losing teeth yet. Her tongue darts around her mouth, hoping to find a loose tooth, and she doesn't stop Jackson from dragging her into the kitchen. He puts his finger to his lips when they see Mrs. Juniper, the lunch lady, and he leads Tara to the pantry without missing a step.

It's overflowing with food, and Jackson releases her hand to start tearing through boxes.

Tara puts her hands on her hips, tapping her foot. "What are you doing?"

She glances back at the door, worried.

"I'm going to make you smile," he says.

She doesn't have time to reply, because he finds the box he wants, and he pulls out the pudding cups triumphantly. "They're your favorite," he says, "I see you eat them every day at snack time."

She takes the snack pack he holds out to her, because they are her favorite.

He sits, and she sits beside him, and they tear open the pudding cups, eating with their fingers.

Tara giggles when Jackson smudges chocolate pudding on his nose, and he looks triumphant. "I made you smile," he says. "My dad says you're supposed to make girls smile when they're sad."

"I'm not sad," she says, frowning at him.

He crumples his pudding cup, picking up a second. "What about your mom?" he asks. He looks right at her when he asks, chocolate rimming his mouth. She doesn't know what to say; everybody in class pretends that her mom isn't sick, and she knows she is supposed to pretend with them.

Her mom is sick with cancer, and you're not supposed to talk about cancer.

"I'm not sad," Tara insists, and she feels small, boxed in, alone.

Jackson shrugs. "Okay." He starts trying to lick the pudding off his nose, making her smile.

She ducks when he tries to smear pudding on her face.

She reaches for another pudding cup, and she asks him how much money he got from the tooth fairy for his teeth. He says that he got a dollar for each, and she sighs, assessing her teeth with her tongue. Nothing's changed. "I haven't lost any teeth," she admits. "I'm never going to lose them."

They devise a plan.

In the end, they aren't caught in the kitchen.

They're caught in the art room, because they needed string to tie to her front tooth to tug the stupid thing out. It hurt, and her mouth tastes gross from the blood, but she holds the tooth tightly in her fist, tonguing at the gap. Blood is splattered on her shirt, and the teacher threatens to call her daddy.

But Jackson grins at her, and she smiles.

Her mother dies when Tara is nine, and Tara wants to wear her perfume for the funeral.

She douses the stuff on, rubbing the flowery sent into her hands like lotion, coating her neck in it, and her daddy frowns at her through bloodshot eyes. "What's that smell?" he asks. She wants to say that the smell is him, because he hasn't showered in days, and he smells like dirty laundry. She doesn't, but she wishes that he was dead, and her mother wasn't. She apologizes to Jesus for that.

The car jerks around on the road as her daddy drives, and he hits another car in the parking lot.

Mrs. Teller tells her that she smells very pretty as they're walking into the church, and Chief Unser gives her a lollypop during the service when her dad breaks down trying to give the eulogy. After the service, standing outside the church, she smells cigarette smoke, and she spots Mr. Winston, a cigarette in his hand. He smiles sadly the way that adults like to do, and he squats down to hug her.

She takes a deep breath. Her mother used to smoke, and Tara digs her fingers into his leather vest.

She knows she shouldn't, but she steals a cigarette pack from a purse that someone leaves unattended during the wake, and she sneaks away into her room. Opie Winston sees her, though, and he follows, bringing Jackson with him. Opie shows her his lighter, and they try to smoke.

They can't, coughing at the attempt, but Tara is determined.

She figures out how to breath the smoke in, and she smokes until her lungs burn.

In the fifth grade, Jax kicks her chair a lot.

That's what everybody calls him, because he says that's cooler. She thinks the name is stupid, and he is stupid. She jerks her chair back, catching his fingers between her chair and his desk, making him squawk in pain. She gets in trouble, but she thinks that'll teach him not to kick her chair a lot.

It doesn't.

Her first kiss is in the seventh grade at the pool party Abby Alder hosts.

They're playing spin-the-bottle, and it's a huge group. Her palms are sweaty when she is forced to take her turn; she hasn't kissed anybody before. The bottle comes to a stop pointed at the gap between Dave Hale, sitting up with his knees to his chest, and Jax Teller, sprawled on his belly, and Tara curses to herself at her stupid, rotten luck, because this is the worst, having to pick a boy.

"Go on, Tara," Jennifer Smith taunts.

But Tara doesn't have to pick, because Jax crawls forward like a lizard, propelling himself up suddenly onto his knees, and grabs her face to kiss her. His mouth is dry, and his lips are chapped.

The boys whoop, and the girls giggle, and everyone is delightfully scandalized.

But her part is finished, and the bottle passes to Gracie Raudales. Tara sits back, glancing at Jax. She thinks he looks like Zack Morris, his blonde hair swept over his head in the same way, and he grins when he looks at her. She feels silly and shaky and stupid, and she knows that she likes him.

Tara wants to do something when Thomas Teller dies, and she ends up trying to bake.

It's a disaster. The kitchen is a mess when she leaves for the funeral, and she ends up buying chocolate pudding snack packs at the grocery store. She doesn't have a chance to talk to Jax, but she grabs scratch paper off his desk, draws a smiley face, and leaves the pudding on his bed.

She joins the field hockey team when she is fourteen, because she needs something to do with her afternoons. High school isn't difficult; most classes are a breeze, and she sleeps in the easiest ones.

Her friends from childhood have started grouping off.

It's weird, how everybody has known everybody since they were toddlers, and everybody has gone to school with everybody since they were in kindergarten, but suddenly everybody isn't friends with everybody. Tara hates trying to keep up with who likes whom on what day, and she keeps to herself mostly, bringing a book to lunch. But it's not as though she is shy; she hangs out with the girls on her field hockey team, and she doesn't mind chatting with the kids in her classes.

Billy Mackenzie invites her to the party he hosts the weekend his parents are visiting his aunt.

It's an excuse to wear the makeup she bought with a few friends at Target the weekend before, and she tries her hand at putting on the stuff. She ends up looking like someone attacked her. She tries to wipe everything off, smearing black gunk over her fingers, and she starts over, only to stab herself in the eye with the mascara brush, making her eyes water. She gives up, washing her face.

But Billy finds her at the party, offers to pump the keg for her, and asks her out on a date.

She bites her lip, accepting the drink he hands her, and starts to nod. "Sure," she agrees. "Okay." Billy went through a growth spurt before most boys in their class, making him lanky, and she likes that. She likes his dimples, and she likes that he wants to go out with thin, bookish Tara Knowles.

She decides to ignore the fact that she remembers him picking his nose when they were eight, or that she knows his mom has been to rehab three times, or that his breath smells like chew when he kisses her cheek. He takes her to the movies, and he kisses her outside the Dairy Queen afterward.

They date for three weeks, and she breaks up with him when she realizes she doesn't like him.

It turns out that Billy Mackenzie is an asshole, though.

He starts telling people that they slept together, and she grabs his shoulders in the hall, smiles like she is about to kiss him, and knees him in the balls. She punches his face, too, and the crowd around them whispers, gasps, laughs in delight at the spectacle. She tries to shake the pain from her hand, telling him that she wouldn't touch him with a ten foot pole, "you pimply, redneck asshole."

She feels like she could rip his face off, God.

She flexes her hand; it hurts like a bitch. She doesn't get in trouble, but she is sent to the nurse, who gives her an ice pack and an aspirin. Tara is about to leave for fifth period when Jax strolls in.

"What's the matter, Mr. Teller?" the nurse asks absently, blinking at Jax from behind her large, thick glasses. She is ancient, the nurse, a wispy woman who watches soap operas through the day.

He pats his stomach. "My stomach's really hurting, Mrs. McGregor."

"Have a ginger ale," she says, pulling a soda can from the fridge for him.

He grins, thanking her as he hops onto the bed in the corner. "I heard you ripped Mackenzie to shreds," he tells her. "I'm sorry I missed Tara Knowles kicking ass." He pops open the soda, glancing at the nurse. "Mrs. McGregor, Tara says her head hurts." He frowns dramatically at her.

The nurse assesses Tara. "Have a ginger ale," she declares, and she fetches a can for Tara.

Tara looks at Jax as Mrs. McGregor putters from the room, murmuring under her breath. Jax grins, tapping his soda can to hers. "Cheers, baby." Tara rolls her eyes, but she skips fifth period.

John Teller dies in a motorcycle accident when Tara is fifteen, and everybody treats Jax like glass. They touch his arm with sad, pitying eyes as they ask him how he is, and the teachers don't comment when he arrives late to class, sleeps for half an hour, and skips out before the bell rings.

Tara asks to go to the bathroom when he leaves third period twenty minutes early on Tuesday, and she catches up with him as he turns the corner. He looks like shit, but she grabs his hand. "Come on," she says, dragging him into the ladies. She shuts the door, wedges the stopper under to serve as a lock, and spins around to face Jax before she pulls out the pot her neighbor sold her yesterday.

He doesn't grin, but he gives her something close to a smile, and she'll take it.

She is shit at rolling, making him laugh at her attempts, but she manages, and they sit on the floor with their backs to the wall under the window, smoking. A girl tries to get in the bathroom, and Jax hollers that it's occupied, which makes Tara laugh until she cries. She pats Jax fondly on the face.

"What happened to your arm?" he asks, nodding at the purpling bruise above her elbow.

She shrugs. "My dad was drunk."

It isn't news to him, she knows; it isn't news to anybody, because that's how this town works, and she doesn't doubt that everybody in Charming knows her father is a deadbeat that downs whiskey like water. "Asshole," Jax says. She nods, lolling her head back against the wall to watch the smoke drift up lazily from her mouth to slip out the open window. They smoke until class lets out.

They don't talk about it, but getting high together in the ladies becomes a regular thing that spring.

She starts working as a hostess in June, saving up to buy a car.

Mary Horowitz drags her out to Target the weekend before July fourth, because she insists that everything Tara owns smells like french fries, and she needs something cute to wear for the fourth.

They go out to the field where kids party every summer. The guys with trucks park them in a big circle, leaving the doors open to blast music from the radios, letting the headlights keep the field lit, and the police turn a blind eye to the music, to the kegs, to the fireworks that go off at midnight.

It's tradition, after all, and everybody loves tradition.

Tara doesn't intend to get drunk, but the jungle juice tastes like candy, and usually the stuff at these things tastes like shit. It's not like she is about to get busted. She dances with her friends for a while, but she sees Jax, sitting on a truck bed like a king on a throne as he smokes with three girls.

She thinks one is his girlfriend, or the girl's he dating, or something like that.

Tara doesn't love the girls that hang around Jax; she's known most since they were little, but they've become stupid and trashy and mean in the last year, and she makes a point to avoid them.

But she is drunk, and she wants to be high. She hops up onto the truck.

Jax grins, handing her his joint, and she runs a hand through his hair as she takes a deep breath in, letting the smoke leak out as he wraps a hand around her calf. "My shit is better," she tells him, because this stuff is crap. The girl next to him whispers something to him, but he doesn't respond.

"Yeah, yours is the best," he tells Tara.

Stacy calls her name, and Tara takes another hit before she returns the joint to him. "Thanks." She hops off the bed, giggling at nothing when Stacy wraps an arm around her waist, happy to be high.

She keep her job at the restaurant when sophomore year starts.

Jax comes to school that year with a leather vest on, the kind the bikers wear. "It's called a kutte, Tara," he says, tipping his chair back as he sits beside her in chemistry. "I'm prospecting this year."

She smirks at how his chest puffs out with the pronouncement. "Congrats," she replies, amused.

They're assigned as lab partners for the class, and that's when she learns that Jax Teller is smart.

He doesn't read the lab handouts for homework like they're supposed to do, but he manages to help her with the lab, and they always finish half an hour before anyone else. They're left free to mess around at their table in the back. They try to flick paper footballs into the sink, and they try to imagine what everybody in class is thinking at that moment. Tara falls off her stool in laughter when Jax takes on a nasally voice to imitate David Hale thinking about jerking off to his purple tie.

Jax is cocky, and he is obscene, but he is funny, too, and he is smart.

Jennifer asks Tara at lunch whether she is friends with Jax. "Sure, I guess," Tara says, smiling a little, puzzled at the way Jennifer looks at her, at the tone in her voice when she asks Tara. "Why?"

"I've noticed that you guys talk a lot in class," Jennifer says.

Tara shrugs. "I've known him since I was five," she says. "He's my lab partner. Why wouldn't I talk to him?" She hasn't thought about whether she was friends with Jax before, but she guesses they are. It's not like they hang out when they aren't in school, but they get along, and he's always been around, like she's always been around, like everybody's always been around. It's Charming.

"Whatever," Jennifer says, turning to talk to Mary, and Tara goes back to her book.

Tara understands what Jennifer meant to imply when she sees Jax kissing Amber Lewis.

Kissing is a kind word, Tara thinks, after she leaves the grocery store to find Jax pressing Amber against an SUV in the parking lot, her legs hiked up around his waist as she tries to eat his face. Tara hurries past the couple, the plastic straps on the grocery bags digging painfully into her arms.

Her house is close enough to walk into town, and it's not like she can drive.

She knows Jax gets around, because everybody in Charming loves to gossip about that stuff. He gets around, and that hasn't bothered her, but suddenly she feels as though she is twelve years old, and she likes him. She got over that crush as easily as any middle school kid gets over a crush, and she tells herself that's what this is. A stupid crush, and she'll stop caring in a few weeks. Nothing is going to happen; it's not like she's able to imagine going out with Jax Teller. The idea is laughable.

She dumps the groceries on the kitchen table, and she calls Stacy to hang out.

Chemistry ends, and Jax walks out with Tara.

Amber is outside the classroom, leaning against the lockers, and Jax nods at her. But he doesn't stop to talk to her. He walks past her, oblivious to the way she straightened, smiled, opened her mouth to say something to him. Tara shakes her head; Jax is a jerk. "I think I'm skipping out on English," he says, stopping with Tara at her locker. "Meeting up with Ope to work on our bikes."

She pulls her history textbook out. "I'm surprised you bothered to come to school at all."

He grins. "I couldn't miss out on chemistry class," he replies, blinking innocently at her as he leans against the lockers. She gives him a look, and he chuckles. "I'll see you later, babe," he says, and he pushes off the lockers, touching her arm as he starts down the hall, glancing back to wink at her.

She rolls her eyes, waving him off.

Her dad goes on a bender in September, crashing his car into the minimart.

It's what everybody wants to talk about for a week, and Tara skips school, sitting around her house, watching cooking shows on television. She doesn't visit her dad at the hospital, but she picks up his shit, trying to reduce the clutter that piles up in every room. It's something to do.

She throws out stuff from years ago, and she doesn't answer when nosy Mrs. Abbott knocks repeatedly on the door, trying to peek through the blinds, hollering that she baked a Bundt cake.

Tara can't wait to get out. As soon as she is eighteen, she is finished with Charming.

The party the first weekend in October is at Harvey Baxter's.

Tara skips out on most parties, but Mary is madly in love with Harvey Baxter, and Tara is dragged to the party. It's hot out for October, and the place is packed. Tara slips onto the back porch when sweat starts to trickle down her neck, rolling her eyes when she realizes that people are in the pool.

She makes a beeline for the keg, though, because her cup is empty, and she isn't drunk.

Dylan Murphy comes up beside her, and he doesn't know how to use a keg. She loves that, teasing him as she shows him how to pump, and he touches a hand to her hip. She bites her lip, looking over her shoulder at him as she hands him his cup. He is cute, brown curls falling on his forehead.

They talk in geometry, and she thinks she might have English with him.

He moved to Charming when they were in the eighth grade, which makes him among the few boys she doesn't remember as a five-year-old, and she can't help loving that fact about him. "What are you up to this weekend?" he asks. She sips her beer, tilting her head, smiling as she takes her time.

"Nothing," she replies. "Why?"

He starts to say something, and Jax throws an arm around her shoulder. "What's up, Murphy?"

Tara resists the urge to elbow Jax in the stomach. Shithead.

"Hey, Teller," he greets. It's quiet for a long, awkward moment. "I'll see you around, Tara."

Dylan leaves, and Tara shrugs Jax off. "I don't have weed for you," she says, annoyed.

He smiles. "I wasn't looking for weed," he replies, and he takes her cup from her.

She watches, puzzled, as he sets the drink on the keg, and he starts to move, forcing her to walk backwards, his hands on her hips. "What?" she starts, and he grins, his eyes flickering to her lips.

"I was looking for you," he says.

She tries to say something, stuttering on shock. Her back hits the porch wall.

"Come on, Jax," she manages, trying to be dismissive, trying not to blush.

"I'm serious, baby," he replies, brushing the hair from her face. She tries to look away, but he catches her gaze. She feels her face start to flush, but she can't take him serious. "Let's go out," he says, and she laughs nervously. She refuses to believe he is for real. "Seriously, Tara," he insists.

He looks amused, smiling crookedly at her, but he hasn't backed off.

"I don't know what your angle is," she tells him, "but I know you aren't serious."

"Why's that?" he asks. "I like you."

She shakes her head. "I'm not like your girls." Her heart is in her stomach, beating fast. "The girls you've dated," she continues, "I'm not like that. I mean, look." She tries to gesture at herself, hoping to convey what she can't seem to spit out, but Jax chuckles softly, gaze sweeping over her.

"I'm looking, darling," he says, lips quirking as his gaze meets hers. "I'm gonna kiss you."

She opens her mouth to protest, but he doesn't let her. It's quick, and he backs away, nose brushing hers, waiting for a reaction. She curls her fingers into his kutte, and she feels him grin before he leans in. Her head tilts back with the kiss, and he presses closer, lifting her onto her toes, his hands on her hips, his tongue sliding across hers. She blinks, dazed, when he draws away to grin at her.

She hasn't really been kissed like that before.

He litters kisses along her cheek while she catches her breath.

"Let's go out," he repeats, an easy confidence in his voice, a smile playing on his mouth.

She is flustered, but she manages to put her hands on his chest, lightly shoving him away. "I'll think about it," she says, trying to act as assured as he is, trying to imitate the ease in his posture.

He grins, amused, but he raises his hands up, backing away. "Okay. I'm good with that."

He glances over his shoulder when he reaches the sliding door into the house, and she shakes her head at his smirk. His response is to wink, and she rolls her eyes, waiting until he disappears from view to sink to the ground, her legs giving way under her. She just made out with Jackson Teller.

He asked her out. She covers her face with her hands. Oh, God.

She can't stop smiling that night. She rolls over in her bed, pressing her face into her pillow, but her smile isn't deterred, and she rolls back over, smiling stupidly up at the ceiling through the dark.

She squeals, kicking her legs wildly, and presses her hands to her cheeks, smiling into her palms.

Her mind goes into overdrive the next morning, when she realizes that, as far as she knows, Jax hasn't dated anyone before. He makes out with girls, sleeps with them, she is certain, but he doesn't date them. She isn't sure what he wants from her, but she doesn't want to become Amber Lewis.

She works that afternoon, and she tries to focus on that.

People are slowly trickling out after the lunch rush when Jax comes in. She turns away the moment she sees him, ducking around the corner. She looks like shit. She straightens her shirt, runs a hand over her hair, pushed up in a messy ponytail. She wipes her mouth, terrified suddenly that mustard is smeared on her chin. No. It's fine. She's fine. She takes a deep breath, coaching herself to cool it.

"Something the matter?" Jax asks.

Her eyes widen, because he is standing right there, looking ridiculously pleased with himself for having caught her. "No," she says, crossing her arms, smiling. "I'm great. Do you want a table?"

"Nah, I'm good," he says. "I was gonna wait to talk to you until Monday, but I changed my mind."

She raises an eyebrow at him, unable to help laughing when she sees the laughter crinkling his mouth. "Look, we're friends," she says. "I don't want to ruin that. I know how you are with girls."

He scoffs.

"I don't want to be your friend, Tara," he says, stepping closer to her. "Come on. What? Do you me to beg?" His grin is infectious, but she refuses to give him a smile. "Tara Knowles, you're the smartest girl I've met, and you're funny as shit, and I guess you don't think you are, but you're hot."

She drops his gaze. "Jax."

He takes another step towards her. "I like you, and I know you like me. What's the problem?"

"Fine," she says. "Okay. Fine." She crosses her arms over her chest, and he laughs, his hands going up to press against the wall, trapping her between his arms. "I'm at work," she reminds him.

He nods, leaning in, hesitating with his mouth hovering over hers. "I can leave," he offers.

"Shut up," she says, rising on her toes to kiss him. She grasps his shoulders, curling her fingers into the leather, shuddering when he presses wet, open kisses along her throat. She takes a sharp breath, her pulse hammering against his lips. She slides her hands up to cup his face, bringing his mouth to his, but he hovers, catching her gaze, teasing her. She bites his lip when he starts to smile.

She kisses and kisses him, until her manager clears his throat.

Jax looks over his shoulder at him. "Do you need something?" he asks. Tara covers his mouth with her hand, apologizing to Kevin as she pushes Jax aside. He looks kissed, his mouth swollen, his hair mussed, and she knows she must look as bad. "I guess I'll see you after work," Jax says.

Tara nods, and she follows her manager dutifully back to the front.

Dylan finds her at her locker after first period on Monday. "How was your weekend?" he asks.

She shrugs, trying to find her chemistry homework for the lab; she knows Jax won't have prepared. "I worked a lot." Dylan mentions that he heard she was a hostess, and Jax appears as conveniently as the Friday before, throwing an arm around her shoulders. "Hey," she greets.

He pulls her into his side, slanting his mouth over hers.

"Hey, baby," he replies, straightening. His gaze flickers to Dylan. "What's up, Murphy?"

"Nothing, man," Dylan says, glancing briefly at Tara as he turns on his heel.

Tara looks at Jax, and she shoves his stomach at the smug smile plastered on his face. His response is another kiss. She bites her cheek, ignoring the whispers springing up around the hall.

Mary corners her after third period, Stacy gestures dramatically from across the hall at lunch when she sees Tara heading outside with Jax, and Jennifer drags her into the bathroom to talk after sixth.

Tara isn't surprised at their questions, and she shrugs off their shock. "We're dating," she says, and she gives them a few details. He asked her out on Friday; they went for burgers on Saturday night.

"Have you slept with him?" Mary asks.

Tara gawks at her. "We started dating two days ago!" But Mary makes a face, as though that doesn't mean a thing, and Tara knows she is right. It's the reason why nobody else at school cares that Jax kissed her in the hallway that morning. She isn't exactly the first girl to be seen with him.

The buzz starts on Thursday when Jax tells his English teacher that he didn't do the reading because he was taking his girlfriend out to that stupid chick movie at the dollar theater last night.

Suddenly, everyone can't stop talking about them.

Jax isn't bothered, and Tara doesn't mind as much as she would've thought.

"Apparently, they think I'm your girlfriend," she says, walking with him to the picnic table his friends claim as theirs. "I don't suppose you'd happen to know anything about that, would you?"

He shrugs. "I know it's the truth," he replies, smiling innocently at her.

She shakes her head, and he pulls her into his lap.

She knows her friends want to pelt her with questions at lunch, which means eating with Jax is a given; his friends don't give a shit. Opie asks her what she's up to that weekend, and Lowell chimes in that she should race dirt bikes with them on Sunday. Tara nods, stealing a fry from Jax.

Jax teaches her how to kiss, patiently letting her explore his mouth with her tongue, whispering hotly for her to tilt her head, breathing, "God, yes," when she sucks on his pulse point. She grins at school the next day when she sees the raised, red skin, and she lets him tug her into the bathroom.

He takes her out on his motorcycle after they've been dating for two weeks. He convinces her to skip school that day, but she hesitates to climb behind him on the bike; people die on motorcycles.

He laughs, revving the engine as he waits for her to join him. "What's the matter?" he asks.

"I mean, you built that," she says. "I like you, Jax, but I don't think I trust you as a mechanic."

She isn't getting on that bike.

She was shy around him for a few days after he asked her out, shy from the giddiness, shy from the newness, but that's quickly starting to fade. His ability to talk her into anything, however, isn't.

She gets on the bike, and it's terrifying.

She clings to him, swearing her hatred as loudly as she can over his laughter as the wind whips at her face. But it's a rush, he's right. She presses her face between his shoulder blades when he brings the bike to a stop. She doesn't what to admit he's right. "I hate you," she mutters to his back.

The second time isn't as scary, or she realizes she likes how scary the speed is. It doesn't matter.

She relaxes, and they grab food at the gas station before heading to the overpass that looks out on the valley behind Charming. It's November, and it's getting cold, but kissing Jax keeps Tara warm.

They get drunk in the park off third street.

It's stupid, but Tara feels invincible that night. She watches her breath billow up in the cold air, listening to the stupid shit the boys say, straddling Jax on the bench behind the sandbox, drunk.

Being with Jax is like being high; everything seems easier with him.

He acts as though everything is easy, as though there isn't any reason in the world not to be wasted in a public park at two in the morning on a Wednesday, and it's like his grin; it's infectious, it's undeniable, it's intoxicating. She feels good with Jax, feels happy, feels wanted, and she basks in it.

On that night, Opie picks up drinks without a problem, and they meet at his house. Jax laughs at the look on her face when Tara watches Opie light a drink on fire in the basement. They're drunk when they leave, and Tara waves stupidly at Mr. Winston as they pass him watching the television.

He raises his beer to her in salute.

They play at the park. Peter starts belting out a Madonna song from where he stands on the wooden castle, and Jax pushes him off into the netting below while Opie practices shooting empty beer cans with a paint gun that Lowell pulls out from nowhere. Tara swings as high as she can, only to jump off the swings to fly unceremoniously into the sandbox, where Jax tackles her, hands dipping under her shirt to tickle her, and sand flies in every direction as she tries to escape him.

Of course, she ends up straddling him on the bench.

She doesn't know where the others end up, but their voices fade, and she thinks Peter might've started chasing Opie with the paint gun. She doesn't really care, because Jax shifts her on the bench, and she swears that kissing him is the best thing and the worst thing in the world, making her feel everything in the world, making her giddy, making her ache, making him into her world.

His hands start to fumble with her belt buckle, but he pauses over the zipper, looking up to catch her gaze, his fingers blistering her where they rest lightly against the skin above her underwear. She twists her fingers into his hair, tugging him up for a kiss as she pulls the zipper down herself.

He pants against her neck, she fists her hand around his sleeve, and he fingers her.

She gasps at the sensation, at the newness; it's like falling asleep and waking up at the same time, his fingers making the heat unfurl inside her, making her tremble. He tongues at her throat, and he presses his thumb into her, against her, presses the throbbing inside her. She arches off the bench.

He kisses her sloppily, rubbing himself against her leg, and she feels needy, hazy, warm, feels everything coil, tightening in an awful way, stretching towards something she can't reach, and suddenly everything shatters, unraveling as a sharp, pointed pleasure rushes sweetly though her.

Around them, things come into focus.

She feels how cold the bench is against her elbow, feels the sweat trickle down her temple, feels the dampness staining her jeans. Jax lifts his face from between her breasts, looking smugly at her.

His breath is warm on her cheek, a contrast to the brisk air that nips at her ears.

She smiles at him, and his fingers thrum against her stomach, tickling her. She squeals loudly, shoving him off her, and she is happy they came to the park, happy his friends disappeared, happy.

She feels right with Jax.

He takes her to the garage on her sixteenth birthday, bragging about his surprise for her.

They've been dating for a few months, and his friends have become her friends, but this is her first time at Teller-Morrow, and she can't help how nervous she feels walking onto the lot with him, seeing the guys in their kuttes. But that changes when Jax shows her the junker he fixed up for her.

"It isn't exactly a sports car, but it'll run," he says, pleased with himself. "Happy birthday, babe."

It's for her. He fixed the junker up for her.

She got her permit a week and a half ago, but she figured she wouldn't be driving much; it wasn't like her dad was about to let her touch the Cutlass. She starts to freak out when she realizes that Jax is serious. He tries to say that he got the car from the junkyard for cheap, but she doesn't let him finish. She grabs his face, kissing him, squealing as she spins around to look at the car, pulling him back in for another kiss a moment later. He squeezes her hips, laughing as she hops in excitement.

"Congrats, sweetheart," a man says, and Tara quiets as she turns to him. "I'm Tig."

"Tara," she replies. "I'm with Jax."

Tig grins, something lecherous in his gaze. "I figured. Hope you're looking after him."

"Aw, fuck off," Jax says.

Tig smacks Jax behind the head. "Watch yourself, prospect." But he doesn't seem pissed, and he winks at Tara before he returns to his work on an SUV across the garage. Tara looks at her junker.

She squeals, stands on her tiptoes to kiss Jax, and grabs the keys from his hand.

"Hey," she says, kicking his leg lazily as they sit in the bathroom, smoking when they're supposed to be in first period gym, "why'd you decide suddenly that you liked me?" She tilts her head at him.

He smiles slowly, smoke curling from his mouth. "I've always liked you," he says. "I've thought you were hot since high school started, and I saw your ass in jeans." His smile turns into a grin, and she laughs, swatting at his hands when he grabs her around the waist to tug her towards him.

He palms her ass, and she straddles his lap.

"I realized I wanted you to be my old lady the instant I saw Murphy hanging on you," he adds.

She wants to roll her eyes at the expression; she isn't an old lady. But she doesn't. She tucks his hair behind his ear. Smiles at him. "Just like that," she says, because Jax would decide he wanted her in an instant, and he wouldn't waste time thinking about everything. He wouldn't bat an eye.

He would go for what he wanted.

"Just like that," he echoes, nosing at her cheek. "How about you?" he asks.

She shrugs. "I've always liked you," she echoes, teasing him. "I've thought you were hot since, oh, seventh grade." She runs her hands through his hair, and he doesn't wait to hear more, kissing her.

The summer after sophomore year is her favorite summer yet.

Tara quits her job, or gets fired. Whatever. Her boss is a dick, and she doesn't want to spend another summer wiping spit off menus, smiling at everyone she sees to make them feel welcome, earning pennies. She thinks spending the summer at the garage with Jax is a much better choice.

It's hot, humid, and horrible summer, and she likes stretching out on the junker hood with a book in her hand, baking in the sun as Jax works. He steals kisses from her when he isn't joshing around with Opie, and she whistles wolfishly when he bends over, waggling her eyebrows at him.

He moves to stand between her legs, and Ope throws a rag at them when they start making out.

She picks up lunch for them on most days, driving with her shiny new license, and the guys at the garage start giving Tara their orders, too, telling her to keep the change when they hand her money.

"Buy yourself something sweet, kid," Otto says.

A few weeks into June, a guy picking up his Chevy from the garage whistles at Tara, bending over to retrieve food from the backseat. The heat is overwhelming that day, and Tara knotted her t-shirt up around her bellybutton, a decision she regrets as she straightens, slamming the car door shut, and glances over her shoulder at the creep. He is twice her age, a belly hanging out over his jeans.

She glares from behind her sunglasses, choosing to ignore him, but —

"It comes to six fifty," Bobby says.

The man frowns, his gaze snapping to Bobby. "I thought we said five hundred."

Bobby shrugs. "Changed my mind," he says. "I charge horny bastards extra." He winks at Tara, and she tosses him his sandwich, disappearing into the garage to find Piney. The guys in the club are horny bastards, too, but they're sweet to Tara, and she figures they've got daughters her age.

Mrs. Teller is nice to Tara, offering to pay her eight dollars an hour to help around the office every once in a while, "and it's Gemma, baby," she adds, but there's a coolness in her words, an appraisal in her gaze, as though she hasn't yet passed judgment on Tara, and the verdict doesn't look good.

Tara tries not to care, and she relishes the times Gemma isn't around.

She goes to the lake with Jax, and the boys tag along most nights, the same guys that have hung out with Jax since they were kids, Opie, Lowell, Peter, Lester, and Nicky. They jump off the docks in the dark, pushing off the muddy ground to propel themselves back up to the surface, drinking, smoking, daring the police to find that Opie used garden hedges to cut through the chain link fence.

Occasionally, they'll stop in at parties, and Tara tries to seek out her friends, to ask about their summers, to prove that she hasn't abandoned them. But Jax wraps his arms around her waist from behind, and Stacy gets distracted flirting, and Tara can't be bothered to care that Jennifer is pissed.

The party the first weekend in July gets busted, which is shitty, but Unser doesn't try to stop kids from fleeing the scene. Tara ends up on main street with Jax, belting out the lyrics to the music at the party. She doesn't realize they're wasted until Jax pees on a lamppost, which she finds hilarious.

She thinks that shouldn't be funny, but she can't stop laughing at him.

"I think I'm drunk," she announces, and Jax kisses her sloppily, squeezing her ass.

A deputy interrupts them, and they're taken in for disorderly conduct.

It's the first time they've been caught drinking in public, but apparently they made a scene, and somebody called the police. Tara wants to be freaked, but Jax acts like it's nothing, like they aren't really in trouble, telling Tara not to sweat it, and Gemma picks them up an hour later. "Idiots."

Jax shrugs. "Sorry, Mom," he says, pulling Tara into his side to kiss her wetly on the cheek.

"Yeah, you look real sorry," Gemma says, but Tara swears the woman smiles to herself as she searches through her purse for her keys, telling them to get their drunk, disorderly butts in the car.

She drops Tara off at home, and her dad is passed out on the couch. Tara rolls her eyes, and she goes to bed, waiting for Jax to sneak in through her bedroom window; it doesn't take half an hour.

A week later, they have sex for the first time.

Jax scales the trellis beneath her bedroom window for the millionth time, hopping into the room, making Tara laugh when he needs to yank up his pants. "Hey, babe," he leans over to kiss her before dropping into her desk chair with a sigh. "God, being a prospect is killing me. Seriously."

"It's barely dark out," Tara says, marking the page in her book. "I think you could've used the front door." She raises her eyebrows at him. "My dad isn't about to give you shit. He couldn't care less."

As far as Tara can tell, her father doesn't give a shit about their relationship. It's not as though he's cared about anything in her life before, and she doubts he would suddenly feel like a father because she started dating somebody. No, his apathy to her life extends easily to her relationship with Jax.

Jax rises from the chair to crawl onto the bed, sprawling out lazily beside her.

"I don't want to risk it," he replies, hands behind his head. "What's the book?"

She smirks, lying parallel to him. "Do you really care about my book?" she asks.

"Yes," he says, shaking his head, and she laughs as she leans towards him, squealing when he rolls her suddenly, easily under him. His holds his weight on one hand as the other snakes around to wrap her leg around his waist. She circles her arms around his neck, arching up into him, and he kisses her, a wet, openmouthed kiss that leaves her breathless. She drags her nails over his scalp in retaliation, and she holds her hips off the bed to help him when he starts to tug off her jean shorts.

He litters kisses over her neck, and she raises her legs up to return to their place around his waist.

His kisses travel across her collarbone, and he mouths at her breast over her shirt, biting down suddenly, her clothes blunting his teeth. She presses her knees into his hips and grapples with his shirt. He rises up after a moment to pull the t-shirt off, and she runs her hands greedily across him.

His hands start to fumble with the snaps in her shirt, but she bats him away, sitting up slightly to tug the shirt off without bothering to deal with the snaps, and he grins appreciatively at her, ducking immediately to her breasts, his hands already moving to her back, fumbling with the clasp on her bra. They're practiced at this, undressing each other with shaky, eager hands as they kiss.

He gets her bra off, rolling onto his back in the next breath to undo his belt.

She grins at him, pulling down her underwear, laughing when he stands up to hop around on one foot after another in order to discard his jeans. His boxers follow, and he drops back onto his knees, kissing her quickly on the mouth before he starts to move down between her breasts, over her stomach, tongue moving lightly enough to tickle her. She pushes at his shoulder. "Stop!" She is breathless from laughter when he glances up, smug, before his hands run slowly up her thighs.

He spreads her legs, and her laughter gives way completely when his head dips between her legs.

She curls her hands into his hair. They've done this more than a few times; her stomach swoops in anticipation before his tongue pushes into her, and she can feel his smile as she mumbles his name, unable to stay coherent, his hand on her stomach to hold her in place as she starts to fall to pieces.

He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and he crawls back up her.

She blinks, boneless, affectionately tucking his hair behind his ear.

"Tara," he breathes, gaze eagerly searching her face. "Tara, I brought a condom."

It's the third time he's brought the subject up. She knows he won't press her after she shakes her head. He won't say anything for a few weeks, in fact, but in another month he'll be kissing her, and they'll be like this, wrapped up in each other, their clothing discarded, and he'll draw back to look at her, to plead with her, to tell her that he brought a condom, and it's up to her to decide the when.

"I love you," he adds.

She bursts out in laughter, smacking his arm. "Jax, please tell me you didn't say that to get into my pants!" He is an idiot, an adorable, horny idiot, and she laughs, giddiness fluttering in her stomach.

"No," he protests, pinking. "I mean it. I love you." He swoops down to kiss her cheek.

She shakes her head at him, and she doesn't know whether she believes him, but she knows that she loves him. She giggles, because she loves him. She tucks his hair behind his ear. "I love you."

His grin is slow to spread across his face, and he kisses her.

She pushes at his shoulders, biting her lip. She loves him. "Get your condom," she says. He falls off the bed in his haste, making her laugh. But as he stumbles back onto the bed, tearing open the condom wrapper, her stomach flutters, and she grabs his hand. "If I want to stop, can you do that?"

He looks at her, and his voice is impossibly soft. "Just say the word," he says.

She nods.

He kisses her, a quick, sweet kiss. "I love you. I'm serious, Tara."

She toys with his hair, drawing him in for a slower kiss. "I know," she whispers. "Come on."

She helps him roll the condom on, but he stays on his knees, hovering over her. He kisses her, as he presses his palm between her legs, his thumb flickering off the soft, swollen nub. She digs her fingers into his arm, rocking inadvertently against his hand, already tantalizingly close from earlier.

She is dazed, warm and achy and lost in him, and she feels him pressing against her.

Her legs are spread, folded at her knees. "Tara," he says.

"I love you," she murmurs, kissing him, and he pushes into her. The pressure overwhelms her for a moment as he stretches her out, but he stares at her, his nose brushing hers, and the pain isn't that bad, she thinks, when she realizes that he is buried inside her. He slips out, thrusting softly back in.

"We're having sex," she says, awed. He chuckles, a strain in the sound.

It's awkward, shifting against him, figuring out how this works. She presses her heels into the bed, trying to match his movement, and he stops. "Go on," he says, and his eyes have closed. She starts to move, rolling her hips to bring him inside her, and he groans against her cheek, catching onto her rhythm, which sends a hot, teasing pleasure spiraling through her. His thrusts become sloppier, but she meets them, and she can't keep her eyes open, arching into him. A moment later, his hand twists between them, touching her, and she falls apart as easily as that. She melts into the mattress.

He starts to slam into her. "Open your eyes," he says, and she opens them, staring at him.

She fists her hands into his hair, pulling him closer. "Come on, baby," she breathes, and a hard, fast thrush sends him over. He pushes into her a few more times, softening, before he rolls off her.

It's quiet for a moment as they lie on the bed, breathless, staring at the ceiling, but Jax sits up finally, tugging off the condom. As soon as he tosses the thing into the trash, he falls back onto the bed, turning his head to look at her. The smile spreads slowly across his face, and she smiles, too.

"How was that?" she asks, reaching out to graze her finger over his lips.

He reaches out to brush her damp hair from her forehead. "I think that was the greatest moment in my entire life," he says. She snorts, laughing when he grins that stupid, asinine grin. He takes her face in his hands, grinning between the sweet, happy kisses he presses to her mouth. "I love you."

The air conditioning for the office at the garage breaks.

It's awful, trying to do work in that cramped, overheated room, the humidity damp on her skin, and she retreats into the clubhouse as often as she can, drinking beer for free and revealing in the cold air that blasts from the ceiling. The summer is nearly finished; she doesn't know whether her job is.

In the last week before school starts, Otto starts to teach her how to shoot pool, having found her lazily peeling the label off her beer battle as she waited for Jax to finish for the day. She is awful at the game, but Otto turns out to be a patient teacher, and she thinks she gets better as the afternoon wears on. He laughs to himself, sauntering off with a wink to Tara, when Jax appears behind her.

"Do you have any idea how hot you look shooting pool?" Jax breathes, his hands on her hips.

She leans back into his chest, tilting her head back to look at him.

His smile is slow, and hers matches his. "I don't put out unless I get dinner," she says.

He kisses her jaw, hands snaking under her shirt to skate over the skin on her lower back. She tries to shove him aside, laughing, but he squeezes her hips, smug when she cups his face, when she kisses him. "I can arrange that," he murmurs, and he walks her backwards, steering her to the door.

It's like this lately, since they had sex; they can't keep their hands to themselves.

All he needs to do is smirk stupidly at her, and she wants to jump his bones, can't not. He knows that, too, knows his hold over her, but she doesn't care. It's not as though she doesn't have the same power over him. He is hers to jump, and she lets him walk her backwards, kissing and kissing.

Gemma holds the door open for them. "Try not to break your neck," she says, exasperated.

Tara starts to pull away from Jax, but he plunges his tongue into her mouth, his hands tightening on her hips before he lifts her off her feet. She laughs, wrapping her legs around his waist, arms around his neck. "Thanks for the tip, Ma!" he hollers, and he sets Tara on his bike. She swings a leg over, but she doesn't release her hold on him. She kisses him, smiling as she bites his lower lip.

"Get a room!" Kozik shouts, and Jax gives him the finger.

She is sixteen, and she is in love.

"I can't be late to school for the third time in a week," she says. She hops a little to pull on her jeans. "It's only the second week." She gives him a pointed look. He might have started caring less and less about school, but she isn't at that point yet. "Come on," she says, tossing his jeans at him.

He sighs, but a smirk plays on his lips, and she narrows her eyes at him.

A moment later, he holds out a pink paper pad from his pocket. They're permission slips for tardiness, and they're signed. "I convinced the girl in the office to forge the signatures," he says.

She shakes her head at him, and he falls back on the bed, putting his hands behind his head. She snatches up the permission slips, starting towards the door, knowing he will follow in a minute, because he is her ride, and he won't actually trap her at his house. But he doesn't follow at first, and she looks at the slips in her hand. She glances over her shoulder. They have permission to be late.

The slips shouldn't go to waste. He smirks, and she takes a running leap back onto the bed.

It isn't a big deal when Miranda comes over to their table at lunch to ask Jax for help with her car. She can't get the truck to start, and Jax knows how to help with that stuff; it makes sense for her to ask. But Tara frowns as she watches them walk off, as Miranda touches Jax on the arm, laughing.

"It's nothing, Tara," Opie says.

She glances at him. "I know that." He nods, smirking into his mashed potatoes.

But Miranda starts to hang around, finding excuses to talk to Jax. "She used to date Jax, didn't she?" Mary asks, standing beside Tara as they watch Miranda at his locker, twirling her hair around her finger. Tara shrugs. She doesn't know, but Miranda looks like the girls he used to date.

The idea isn't as easy to shake off as Tara expects, and the subject comes up with Jax.

"I guess you're friends with Miranda Carson," she says, sitting in the garage.

He nods. His focus doesn't leave his bike. "She's cool."

"Have you slept with her?"

His head snaps up. "What?" His voice is laced with incredulity, but she isn't deterred.

She sips her soda. "Mary says that you dated. I'm assuming that means you slept together, but I thought I would ask. So. Have you slept with her?" She blinks innocently, waiting for an answer.

He smiles uncomfortably, and she knows. "Tara," he says, but that's enough.

"Okay," she says. "I get it. My soda's out." She hops off the bench, her back to him.

"Tara, come on," he says. He springs to his feet and catches her arm. "We went out a couple times, and we fooled around. It wasn't a big deal." He stares imploringly at her, and she feels stupid for doing this, for bringing the subject up, for being upset at his answer, but she can't help her feelings.

"How many girls have you been with?" she asks.

He scoffs. "Tara." But she isn't going to let him beg off. She pulls her arm from his grasp, glaring at him. "It doesn't matter," he insists, and she snorts, crossing her arms over her chest. "Seriously."

"Seriously, I want to know," she says. "I'll tell you about the guys I've fooled around with."

His face hardens. "What? Who've you fooled around with? I thought —" She tilts her head at him, and he realizes, deflating. "The fuck, Tara," he mutters. "I thought you were serious for a second."

"Why would that have mattered?" she asks, feeling vicious, vindictive.

"I get your point," he says. "But I can't help that I went out with girls before we got together."

"All I want to know is who," Tara says. She doesn't want to be surprised.

He sighs, but she isn't about to budge. "Okay. Fine. I slept with this croweater for a few weeks when I was fifteen. I'm pretty sure Clay was convinced that getting with her was the best way for me to get over that fact that I watched them put my dad in the ground. But she ended up in L.A."

Tara nods.

Jax reaches out, and she lets him touch her arms, touch her face. "I went out with a few girls after that. I slept with three. But I didn't care about them, Tara. I was messing around. I care about you."

The angry knot in her stomach starts to loosen, dissolving. "I hate Miranda Carson," she says.

"I don't give a shit about Miranda Carson," he replies, adamant.

She nods, and she lets him wrap his arms around her.

"I love you," he says.

She hugs him. "I love you, too," she murmurs. She feels stupid, and she swears she isn't going to be a bitch about this. Jax is nice to Miranda, but Jax is nice to everybody, and Tara is his girlfriend.

But Miranda is asking for it.

She sidles up to Jax in the cafeteria, and she reaches up, mussing his hair.

Tara thinks she might break her lunch tray over her head. Instead, she kisses Jax until Peter jeers, Opie whistles, and Lowell laughs uncomfortably, at which point Jax drags Tara off to a bathroom.

A week later, Tara sees Miranda adjusting her shirt in her locker mirror, tugging on the hem to show off her cleavage, and she can't help stalking over to her. She slams the locker shut, blocking Miranda off. "We need to talk," she says. "I want you to stay the fuck away from my boyfriend."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Miranda replies, flippant.

Tara glares at her, and Miranda starts to smirk.

"What's the matter, Tara?" Miranda says. "Do you think you're special because you're sleeping with Jax?" She leans closer, crowding Tara. "It's not like you're his first. She raises her eyebrows significantly, smugly. "I would get off your high horse," she adds. "He'll get bored." She steps away from Tara. "I'm going to need you to move," she says, nodding at the locker that Tara blocks.

Tara grits her teeth, and she moves back.

Miranda continues to smirk as she opens her locker, pulling out her textbook. She slams the locker shut, smiling sweetly at Tara, and starts to walk past her. "Jax!" she calls, her elbow catching Tara in the ribs, and Tara doesn't think. She shoves Miranda into the locker, and everything goes to shit.

Tara pops a few knuckles punching Miranda, only for Miranda to get in a vicious kick to her shins, crippling Tara for long enough to slap her across the face, her rings catching, cutting Tara on the lip. Tara tastes pennies in her mouth as the teachers swoop in, trying to pull them apart, but they're girls, which means the teaches can't touch them. In the end, Tara manages to jab Miranda in the stomach, and she hauls her up by her hair, shoving her as hard as she can back into the lockers.

"I swear to God, bitch," Tara spits, the rest implied, before she backs away, letting Mrs. Koloski come between them, nodding as the English teacher coaches her to calm down, to use her head.

They're carted off to the vice principle to receive a lecture, and they're told to choose between a month in detention or a few sessions together with the guidance counselor. Tara looks at Miranda.

"Detention," she says, and Miranda nods.

They're escorted to the nurse, and Tara accepts an ice pack for her hand, but she isn't about to sit with Miranda. She finds Jax waiting in the hallway; he pushes off the lockers when she comes out.

His lips twitch, and she narrows her eyes at him.

"I have a detention for a month," she says. He shakes his head at her, a smirk tugging on his mouth. "She is a bitch, Jax." His hands come to rest on her hips. "She thinks she is the best thing to happen to Charming with her fake nails and her fake hair and her fake boobs, and she was asking to get her face fucked up." She glares. He takes her hands, grinning. "Shut up," she says.

"I love you," he replies. He raises her hands to his mouth, kissing her purpling knuckles. Asshole.

Tara is pulled from her third period history class to talk to the guidance counselor.

"Do you know what I want to talk to you about?' Mrs. Hoover asks. Tara shakes her head. "I pulled your file yesterday after the incident with Ms. Carson," she says. "Good grades, teachers love you, test scores reveal an aptitude for science. It looks as though you're on track for college."

Tara doesn't know what to say; this isn't what she expected. "I don't really have plan."

"As a junior, you don't need a plan," Mrs. Hoover says. "But you might want to start thinking about whether college is something you want. College is a big deal, Tara. Opens doors, introduces you to new people, new things. Why don't you read through these? Let me know what you think."

She holds out several pamphlets, smiling at Tara.

"College costs money," Tara replies. There is a reason people in Charming don't go to college.

Mrs. Hoover nods. "But girls with grades as good as yours get scholarships. Tara, I think college is a real possibility for you. I'm serious. I don't give this pitch to everybody." She sighs. "I don't want to push you to do something you don't want to do, but I want you to know that you have options, and I am happy to help you research schools, scholarships, whatever. Just think about it."

Tara takes the pamphlets, and she promises to think about it.

A few weeks before Christmas, she gets a call from Gemma. "Is Jax with you?"

"No," Tara says, glancing at the clock. It's past one in the morning. "I have a test tomorrow," she says, although she doesn't know why she needs to explain herself to Gemma. "I told him not to come over. Why? Is he okay?" She nods when Gemma says everything is fine, and she hangs up.

But everything isn't fine, or Gemma wouldn't bother looking for him.

It takes Tara about seven minutes to decide to search for him. She takes the junker, driving to the park where they hang out, to the bowling alley where he buys stuff he shouldn't, taking familiar roads before she starts towards the highway. Her headlights reflect off the bike, and she spots him.

She pulls over, panicking, and she doesn't bother to turn off the radio let alone to turn off the car. But he is illuminated in the car lights, and he doesn't seem to be hurt beyond a split lip. He sits against his overturned bike, drinking Natty Lite, and she sinks quietly onto the ground beside him.

"Crashed my bike," he mutters. It wasn't necessary to point out, but she nods.

It's quiet. "Gemma called," she says.

He snorts, but he doesn't offer an explanation. She pulls her knees up to her chest, resting her chin on her arms. It's cold. Her Beach Boys tape continues to play from the car. Jax tosses his beer can.

As he pops open a third, he offers her a sip. She shakes her head.

"My mom wants to get married," he says. Tara gapes. She hadn't known that his mom was dating anybody. Jax doesn't wait for her to ask. "It's Clay. He's fucking my mom, and she wants to marry him." He chugs his beer, crushing the can, and Tara tries to come up with something to say.

His jaw is locked, and he doesn't look at Tara. "How long have they been together?" she asks.

"I don't know." He shrugs. "I bet Clay made his move on her before my dad was cold." His voice is bitter, angry, and Tara reaches out to touch his shoulder. He doesn't react, and she curls around him, resting her face against his arm. She can't believe Gemma dropped everything on him at once.

She thinks about saying something to defend Gemma, but he doesn't want to hear that.

"I hate her," he murmurs.

She takes his hand, uncurling his fingers, and presses a kiss to his palm. He looks at her, and his hand slides suddenly around her cheek as his mouth crashes against hers. He tastes like beer, and she fumbles to keep up with him as he shifts, flattening her beneath him, his fingers bruising her.

"Jax," she breathes, his hands under her shirt, squeezing her breasts, trailing over her stomach, tugging on her jeans. "Jax, wait," she says, pushing on his shoulder, and he backs off, moving onto his knees above her. Her jeans are halfway down her thighs, and she tries to catch her breath.

His jaw is locked, and he isn't looking at her, his hands in fists. "I'm sorry," he mutters.

"I love you," she replies, propped herself up on her elbow. He looks at her. "It's okay to be upset."

He presses his lips together, and his words come out low, angry. "I'm not," he says. "I don't care. She is welcome to fuck any guy she wants. I mean, my dad's worm food, right?" His face twitches.

She takes his face in her hands. "Hey, hey," she says, forcing his gaze back to her. "I love you."

He nods, and she pulls him in for a kiss. It's soft at first, and this time she lets him push her onto her back, and she lets him tear down her underwear. She tangles her hands in his hair, kissing him as he pushes into her. Her shirt rides up, and the gravel on the ground scrapes painfully against her skin, but she arches up into him, and he fucks her as the Beach Boys croon about west coast girls.

He helps her get dressed afterward.

She tries not to think about the fact that they didn't use protection.

He puts the backseat down in her car and hauls his bike in. He kisses her softly for a moment, standing beside the car. "I love you," he breathes, and she squeezes his hand. She takes him back to her house, and he falls asleep minutes after they crawl into bed, shoes kicked off, jeans shucked.

She thinks about calling Gemma to let her know Jax is safe. She doesn't.

He buys her diamond earrings for Christmas, and she feels lame when she presents him with the riding gloves she bought after getting advice from Opie. He kisses her, though, declaring she is the best, and she wears her earrings to the dollar theatre to see It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve.

Her period comes on Monday, and she decides to go on birth control.

Tara isn't pregnant, but Mary is.

It's the only thing anybody at school talks about for a month. She is five months along, and she can't hide the bump. As far as the rumor mill is concerned, Carter Mosier is the father, they're getting married, and Mary is dropping out. Mary stops coming to school, but Tara can't believe Mary is quitting school. She can't believe Mary is going to get married, is going to have the baby.

She skips classes on Friday morning, and Jax gives her a ride.

Mary sighs when she answers the door to see Tara, but she lets her in.

"It isn't that bad," she says. "I love Carter, and his mom is sweet. She wants me to move in with them, which would be a lot better than staying with my dad. I mean, you know how that is." She shrugs, and Tara shakes her head. She knows what having an asshole for a dad is like, yes, but that doesn't mean she wants to get pregnant, marry Jax, and move in with Gemma Teller to escape him.

Mary doesn't seem to notice her disagreement, though. "We're getting married in May. As soon as Carter graduates, he'll get a job at the mill with his dad, and we'll get our own place. It isn't that bad."

Tara fiddles with the lid on her soda can. "Why do you have to quit school?" she asks.

"I'm going to have a baby," Mary says. "How am I supposed to study for a math test when I'm waking up every two hours to nurse my kid? I talked about it with Mrs. Mosier. It's for the best."

It's not. Tara wants to shake her friend. An abortion would've been best, or giving the kid up for adoption, or telling Mrs. Mosier that she wants to stay in school, that she wants to graduate, that she doesn't want to end up like Mrs. Mosier. But it's not up to Tara to decide, and she knows that.

Mary talks like everything is figured out.

"Look, I'm sorry I didn't tell you before everybody found out," Mary says, sighing. "I guess we haven't hung out a lot this year. But you don't have to act like I'm dying, Tara. There are worse things." She looks accusingly at Tara. "I'm actually excited about the baby. It's a girl. Cassandra."

Tara tries to smile. "I'm sorry I'm acting weird. I like that name. Cassandra. It's pretty. I like it."

"Thanks," Mary says, and it's quiet.

Tara leaves as soon as she finishes her soda.

Jennifer invites Tara to the baby shower, and Stacy reminds her to bring a gift. Tara doesn't know what to say to them. These are her friends, but they feel like strangers to her. She tries to ask what they think about Mary's decision to drop out, to marry Carter, to move in with him. They glare at her.

"What's she supposed to do?" Stacy asks. "What would you do?"

Tara shrugs. "I don't know, but —"

Stacy doesn't let her finish. "Come on, Tara," she says. "A few years, and you'll have a baby, you'll be living with Jax, and your life will be exactly like hers. What difference is a couple years?"

"Where is your boyfriend?" Jennifer asks, something like a taunt in her voice. She glances around the cafeteria before her gaze settles pointedly on Tara. "He must be skipping today if you're hanging out with us." She stares at Tara with a nasty look on her face, and Tara can't deal with this.

She pushes her chair back. "I don't think I'll be able to make the shower. I'll send a gift in the mail."

Stacy looks like she is about to say something, but Tara doesn't care. If Jennifer wants to be a bitch, Tara isn't going to stick around. She picks up her tray, smiling sourly at Jennifer as she goes.

She eats lunch with Lowell, and she hates Jax for skipping.

Jax takes her to drive-in that night, pleased with himself when he shows her the mint chocolate chip ice cream he bought from the gas station before he picked her up. He knows it's her favorite.

He forgot to bring spoons, of course, but he buys a sour patch kids candy that comes with a tiny pink spoon, and they share, passing the spoon back and forth as they eat from the carton. His gaze is on the movie as he passes her the spoon, but she can't stop thinking about Mary, about Jennifer.

She nudges his leg. "Hey. I want to talk."

"What?" He smiles, the slightest crease on his forehead. "Something the matter?" He steals the spoon back from her, digging up a particularly large chocolate chunk. "Here." He offers the chunk.

The chocolate chunks are the best part, and she takes the spoon from his sticky fingers, giving him a kiss as thanks. "Nothing's the matter," she says. "But I keep thinking about, I don't know, the future. What happens when we're finished with school. Do you, um, do you ever think about that?"

He shrugs. "What's to think about? I know what happens."

"Do you?" she asks, amused at the way he manages to put swagger into a shrug.

His smile melts into a grin. "I take over the club," he says, reaching out to wipe the ice cream off her chin with his thumb. "Me and you get married, pop out a couple kids, live happily ever after."

He ticks them off, and she shakes her head at him.

"We're going to pop out a couple kids? Do you know how pregnancy works?"

He leans forward, his nose brushing hers. "I know the good stuff." He kisses her quickly on the forehead, nicks the spoon from her, and looks back at the screen. It's a James Bond movie, and Tara isn't interested, but she kisses Jax on the temple before she stretches out in the grass. His arm raises automatically to let her rest her head on her lap, and she refuses to think about her friends.

She isn't going to get pregnant. She isn't Mary, and Jax isn't Carter.

She takes the SATs, because Mrs. Hoover says that the school waves the fee for students. Jax laughs at her for taking a test she doesn't have to take, but the school forced them to do SAT prep in English class, and she doesn't see why she shouldn't. It's a Saturday afternoon, and she drinks with Jax, Opie, and Lowell at the clubhouse afterward, getting drunk on too many rum and cokes.

A few days after Tara turns seventeen, Jax gets patched in.

He is the youngest member to be patched in, but Opie is patched in with him, and they've been prospecting for over a year. Tara arrives at the clubhouse with the girl Opie is dating that month.

She grins when she sees Jax doing shots at the bar with Opie. They're wearing their kuttes, and the Sam Crow patch is on the back. They aren't prospects. They're members, and this party is for them.

She pushes up to the bar, ordering an Apple Bomb.

Jax wraps his arms around her from behind. She smiles, dropping the shot and chugging before she turns towards him. He kisses her sloppily, drunk, happy, before offering her a joint. She ends up getting dragged into a pool game that ends when Otto hoists his wife onto the table to kiss her.

Tara turns away, laughing as Jax wraps his arm around her shoulder.

A few beers later, Tara finds herself with a lime between her teeth.

She twists her fingers into his hair as Jax ducks down to lick a stripe across her throat, his tongue dipping between her breasts, his hands squeezing her hips. He pulls her closer as he pours on the salt, and her shoulder blades hit the bar with a thud, but she wraps her legs around his waist, and he licks the salt off her, his teeth grazing her breast before he takes the shot that someone holds out.

His hand slides into her hair, holding her head, and he sucks the lemon from her mouth.

She bites his bottom lip as she spits out the lime peel, and he kisses her, his fingers digging into her neck. "Come on," he breathes hotly, drunkenly, pulling her to her feet. She laughs, falling into him, but he hauls her up, steering her towards the back. Piney claps him on the shoulder as they passes, and Bobby raises a drink to him, but Jax doesn't stop until they've reached the dormitories.

She flops onto the bed, grinning up at him.

He pulls off his jacket, his shirt follows, and he turns to show her the fresh tattoo on his back.

It's rimmed with pink, only a few hours old. "I'm Sam Crow, babe," he says, grinning as he turns to her. "Got the ink to prove it." She tilts her head, biting her lip, and his grin slowly starts to grow.

She crooks her fingers at him, laughing when he is on her in an instant.

Her fingers trace lightly over the tat as he kisses her, and she can't believe how turned on she is.

"If you're a member, I guess I'm an old lady," she breathes, biting his pulse point, and his hands tighten on her hips. He pushes her back, and she tears off her shirt as he undoes his jeans. She discards her bra, falling back on to the bed when he drags down her shorts. She kicks them aside.

He mouths at her breasts. "Do you know what members do to their old ladies?" he asks, stealing her laugher when his teeth scrape over her nipple. She starts to say something, to tease him, but he sucks her nipple into his mouth, and her head falls back against the bed. A moment later, his fingers are at her hips, pulling off her underwear, and his hands are on her legs. She fists her hands into the sheets. His mouth hovers over hers. "We ride 'em like we ride our Harleys," he breathes.

He thrusts into her.

She lifts her hips up off the bed to meet him, and she falls apart within minutes.

It's past noon when she wakes up, and she hears voices trickling into the room from down the hallway. Her head pounds, and she shifts, trying to remember exactly what happened. The night floods back, and she glances at Jax, sprawled on his belly, the sheets twisted around his legs, leaving his tattoo on display. She traces her fingers over the reaper. This is everything he wanted.

He is Sam Crow, and he is hers.

She rolls over, pulling the sheets up over them, and curls against his side.

She applies to volunteer at St. Thomas the summer before senior year.

It's on a whim, because she wants to do something with her summer, and Mrs. Hoover suggests the program, saying the hospital is a great way Tara to "explore a possible interest," and Tara lets Mrs. Hoover turn in an application for her. She doesn't hear anything for a couple months, but —

"I got in," she says, hanging up the phone.

Jax is at the table, working his way through the leftovers he found in her fridge. "Cool, babe."

It turns out that the program for high school volunteers is super cool. She mostly spends her days organizing supplies, filling papers, and doing busywork, but she gets to watch a few surgeries, and the doctors tell her about super cool cases they've had, quizzing her affectionately on medical facts.

Dr. Bayliss recommends an autobiography that a coroner wrote, and it's amazing. A week later, David gives Tara a medical thriller to read, swearing that she won't be able to put the book down.

"Who's David?" Jax asks. They're in the garage, and she was talking nonstop about the hospital.

She raises her eyebrows at him. "David Hale. Who do you think? He's in the program."

"Why's he giving shit to you?" Jax asks, pushing the hair from his face as he looks at her, which smears grease across his forehead. Tara shrugs. He lent her a book. "Whatever," Jax mutters, surging up to kiss her. But she makes a face at him, because she doesn't want grease on her cheek.

He grins, cupping her cheek as he kisses her, and she scrubs the grease off in the garage bathroom.

A week later, he meets her at the hospital for lunch, and he finds her with David. He kisses Tara wetly, thoroughly, possessively, before he nods at David in a dismissive way, and Tara knows what the problem is. She laughs as David scurries off. "Jax, you're jealous," she teases, delighted.

It's hard to irritate Jax, but he is irritated. He is jealous, and she knows she shouldn't like that. But.

"I don't like the fact that some pimply geek hangs out with my girl every day, yeah," Jax says. "It ain't against the law to hate the guy that jerks off thinking about your girl." Tara gapes, trying to protest, because he doesn't need to make their friendship into something inappropriate, but Jax isn't hearing it. "Come on, Tara. The guy wants you. What guy wouldn't?" His gaze sweeps over her.

She laughs, kissing him. "But you're the guy that I'm with. Do you want to eat lunch, or what?" He brought her a veggie sub for lunch, and she shifts to knock her knees softly against his as they eat.

David asks her, as they're leaving the hospital, what she likes about Jax.

"He seems like a jerk," David says. "I mean, I'm not trying to badmouth him, but —" He flushes, shaking his head. "Never mind. I'm sorry I said something." He focuses his gaze on the pavement.

"Relax, David," she says. "It's okay. Jax is a jerk. But he is sweet, too. And he is — you know, I've never actually thought about this before. He is smart. Seriously. I think he might be the first guy I've met that reads books because he wants to. And he cares about his friends, about his club. And he is fun. Really, really fun, and I love that. I love that I can't not smile when I'm with him."

She shrugs, and David nods. "I guess those are good reasons," he says, and she changes the subject, talking about the mystery series he loves. It's nice, having a friend with her at the hospital.

Her nights that summer are much the same as last summer. She breaks into the lake with the boys, and she races cars with them in the Target parking lot at two in the morning, and she gets high in the park with Jax, going down on him under the wooden castle after he tells his friends to fuck off.

Unser arrests them when they're having target practice in Brighton Field, because Tara is drunk, and she asks Jax to teach her to fire a gun, and he doesn't see why the lesson should wait when he knows exactly where Gemma keeps her guns. It's not as though they accidentally shoot a person.

All they do is scare a couple squirrels, but it's a disturbance, and they're brought into the station.

They aren't charged, and Gemma doesn't bother to do more than glare halfheartedly at them.

On her last day at St. Thomas, Dr. Bayliss offers to write Tara a college recommendation.

"Thanks," she says, and she means to say that she isn't sure she wants to go to school. But as he stares at her, smiling, waiting to hear where she thinks she might want to apply, she realizes that she does want to go to school. It's stupid, and it's unrealistic, but she wants to go to college. She tells Dr. Bayliss that she isn't sure where she wants to go, but she'll let him know when she does.

She looks at her SAT results that night. A good score in English, a perfect score in math.

But she puts the scores back in her desk, and summer ends.

Gemma marries Clay Morrow in September.

The wedding is huge, yet they manage to fit everybody into the backyard.

As far as Tara can tell, Jax isn't upset. He walks Gemma down the aisle, winking at Tara when he sees her. Gemma cries when she says I do, and she pulls Tara into a hug during the reception. "I'm glad you came, baby," she says, kissing her on the mouth. Tara nods, stunned, and Gemma laughs.

Apparently, marriage softens her.

Jax pulls Tara into his lap when he joins the poker game that a man called Happy starts, and she falls asleep against him. Jax wakes her up as the wedding is winding down, giving her a piggyback to his bedroom. She changes into a sweatshirt she steals from his closet. "I love you," he whispers.

"Love you, too," she mumbles, burrowing into his sheets.

They skip classes on a Friday to go to Disneyland with Opie, who brings along the girl he is madly in love with that week, a tiny redhead that laughs at everything. The boys take their bikes, and Tara risks holding out her arms against the wind as they speed down the highway. They sneak airplane bottles into the park in their socks, and every ride is twice as fun when you're a tad tipsy on vodka.

In the end, they aren't back before four in the morning, and Jax spends the night at her house.

She doesn't expect to find her father in the kitchen when she gets up to make frozen waffles for breakfast. She isn't wearing pants, and she winces at the realization, but her dad doesn't seem to care. She pretends not to notice him, and she hopes he decides not to notice her; it's easiest like that.

Their relationship is built on not noticing each other, sharing a house but living in separate worlds.

"I got a call that you skipped school," he says, and her hold on the frozen waffles box tightens. "I don't like getting harassed. Why ain't you going to school?" An edge is in his voice, and she knows he is hungover, which means he isn't going to be pleasant. She prefers him drunk. "I'm working my ass off at the mill, and you're skipping classes. The fuck is that about? Hey, I'm talking to you!"

She turns towards him, taking a deep breath. "I was sick, Daddy," she says.

He snorts. "I'll bet." He thumbs through the newspaper, and she puts the waffles in the toaster.

It's quiet. She relaxes. Across the hall, feet thump on the floorboards. Jax is awake.

Her gaze snaps to her father. "What's that?" he asks, staring down the hall. It's obvious that Jax is moving around, probably getting dressed. "Who's in your room?" He looks at Tara. "Is that a boy, huh?" His lip curls. "The fuck are boys doing parading through my fucking house?" he snarls.

"It's my boyfriend," she says. "Jax. We've been dating for two years."

But he isn't in the mood to be appeased, knocking the dishes off the table. The creamer shatters against the wall as he shoves his chair backward, moving to his feet. "Momma didn't raise you to bring boys to my fucking house!" he shouts, his spit hitting her cheek, and she waits for him to do something stupid, to punch the wall, to toss the coffee maker across the room, to upend the table.

It's the toaster that receives his wrath.

His thumb brushes over the top, and she winces a moment before he bellows like a bull

The toaster crashes against the fridge. "Why the fuck is the fucking thing on?" he howls, and Tara knows she needs to stay in the same spot, to let him unleash his fury on inanimate objects, but his gaze lands on her, and she surges around to him the sink, grabbing a dish towel rather than trying to get him to run his hand under the water. "Here, Daddy," she starts, holding out the damp towel.

He grabs the towel from her hands, shoving her aside.

She tries to catch herself, but she stumbles over the waffles scattered on the ground, falling against the counter and knocking over the coffee maker. She tenses. "Do you want to pay for that?" he roars, lunging forward to grab her arm. His grip is painful as he drags her forward to expel her from the kitchen. But the toaster is underfoot, and she feels herself start to trip on the chord at the same moment she spots Jax. He stands in the doorway, stunned, and he watches her pitch forward.

But she doesn't fall; no, that would've been better.

Her tumble pushes her dad to his limit, and he becomes his worst; he catches her, his vice grip on her arm tightening before he smacks her across the face. Her back hits the wall, and Jax storms in.

"Jax!" she warns, surging towards him, trying to stop him, but Jax doesn't listen.

He plows past her to reach her father, backing him against the wall; when her father steps forward, Jax shoves him in the chest, forcing his back to hit the wall. But he isn't deterred. "Do you think you can come into my house?" he snarls. "I don't care that you're fucking my daughter, boy, I'll —"

"Stop!" Tara shouts.

Jax looks ready to kill. "I swear, you touch her again, and I'll —"

Her father tries to take a swing at him, and Jax punches him in the gut. "Jax, stop it!" she screams, trying to pull Jax away. Her father manages to hit Jax across the face, only to double over as Jax starts to pummel him. But Tara grabs his arm, dragging him away from her dad.

"Tara," Jax starts.

She slashes her hand through the air, furious. "Get out," she says. She takes a deep breath.

"I watched him hit you, Tara!" Jax says, incredulous. "I watched him beat you!"

Her father tries to move to his feet, grunting with the effort, but he collapses back onto the floor.

She pushes Jax towards the door, and they get as far as the living room before he digs his heels in.

"He is hungover, Jax, and he burned his hand on the toaster, and that set him off —"

Jax shakes his head. "He deserves to get his ass handed to him," he snarls.

"He is my father!" she shouts, silencing him. "This is my life, Jax! He doesn't usually go for me, but he got set off, and this was a bad morning for him." Jax starts to scoff, and her voice rises an octave. "But he is my problem, Jax, and I don't need you to storm in like some self-righteous —"

Jax turns away from her, running his hands through his hair. "I was not about to ignore a guy beating my girlfriend, Tara. I don't care that he is your fucking father. He is an alcoholic, and a —"

"I care!" she screams. "I care that he is my father, and I — I — I need you to leave." She tries to take deep, slow breathes, tries to force herself to calm down. Jax stares at her. "I mean it," she says. "Get out, Jax. I can't deal with you right now." She crosses her arms tightly over her chest.

His stare abruptly drops, and he stalks past her.

She closes her eyes, anticipating the thud, and the pictures on the wall rattle when the door slams shut. Covering her face with her hands, she breathes in. Her father lumbers past her as soon as she walks into the kitchen, and she doesn't try to stop him from disappearing into the den. He pretends not to notice her, and she pretends not to notice him. It's quiet as she starts to clean up her waffles.

Her skin purples around her right eye, but nobody asks.

She stays angry at Jax for three days.

He doesn't bother to come to school on Monday, and she refuses to be disappointed that she doesn't have to ignore him. Apparently, he is pissed at her, too, because he hasn't tried to call, to climb into her bedroom window, to contact her. She isn't the one that attacked his dad, though.

But she can't fall asleep that night.

He is her best friend. When was the last time she went this long without talking to him? She can't remember how her life worked when he wasn't in it. She takes allergy pills to put herself to sleep.

She promises herself that she'll talk to him on Tuesday.

He doesn't come to school, though, and she thinks about calling him, but her pride howls in protest, and she doesn't. She isn't the one that messed up. She isn't the one that needs to apologize.

On Wednesday, she skips school, and she spends the day cleaning her room, organizing her desk, rearranging the boxes in her closet, and washing her curtains. She finds the pamphlets from Mrs. Hoover in her desk. One is on UC San Diego, one on UCLA, and one on Stanford. She snorts at that, but she goes to school the next day, and she asks Mrs. Hoover where she can get applications.

"It can't hurt to apply, right?" she asks.

Mrs. Hoover beams at her.

She calls her aunt that night. Aunt Barbara isn't really her aunt, but she is family, and she lives in San Diego, and she went to school there, which means she might be able to help Tara in applying.

Aunt Barbara squeals when Tara mentions applications, and Tara smiles into the phone.

Danielle Baxter comes to school as smug as can be on Friday, and her friends giggle to themselves when they see Tara down the hall. Tara learns from a stuttering, reluctant Lowell that Abby Alder hosted a party last night, and a few people might've maybe seen Danielle kiss Jax, but, Tara, don't!

She ends up with a bruise on her hip from when Danielle slammed her against the lockers, but Danielle walks away with a bloody nose, three cracked fake fingernails, and a few loose hairs.

The vice principle demands to know what happened, looking between the girls.

"Danielle attacked Tara," Opie says, emerging from the crowd, and he volunteers to walk Tara to the nurse. She shakes her head at him, saying she is able to walk herself, but Opie catches up with her. "It was a good punch," he says. "I think you might've broken her nose. I heard Jake say her mom was picking her up to take her to the hospital." He gets two ginger ales from Mrs. McGregor.

He smiles at her, and she meets his gaze. "Thanks, Ope."

She spends the weekend filling out the applications. Her English teacher readily agrees to write her a recommendation, and he can't stop talking about Berkley, because, "I went there you know, and I would be happy to get you an application," and she nods. Dr. Bayliss is delighted with her choices.

She realizes she is short on cash when she has to pay application fees.

But she hasn't had a job in a while, and Jax usually pays for stuff. Her stomach squeezes, and she hates him. She scrounges up the money she can find in the couch cushions, under her bed, in her coat pockets, and she manages to send off the applications. She decides to start searching for a job.

On Monday, Jax walks into her first period physics class. "Mr. Teller," the teacher starts.

"I gotta talk to Tara," he says, shaking his head.

Mrs. McGlynn sighs, waves her hand in dismissal, and goes on as though he hadn't interrupted.

Tara shuffles from the room after him.

She won't look at him when they're alone in the hall, though. "How's life?" she asks, crossing her arms over her chest and staring pointedly at the gum stuck to the ground a few feet away from him.

His hand slides around her face, and he slams his mouth to hers.

She sways on her feet from the force, but she curls her fingers into his kutte, and she finds herself stumbling backwards as he corners her against the wall, his hands snaking down to grip her ass, to hike her legs up. He draws away, panting, and his forehead rests against hers. Her eyes are closed.

"I hate that you made out with some slut," she says.

His breath is hot against her flushed face. "I was drunk, and you kicked me out." She opens her eyes to meet his. "He deserved a beating, Tara. But he isn't my dad." His jaw clenches, unclenches.

It's as big as concession as he is willing to make, and it's enough.

She nods. His kiss this time is sweeter, his thumb brushing against the skin over her jeans. "I was going crazy, babe," he says hotly, and she pushes her hands into his hair, holding his head while she kisses a trail across his neck. She bites his pulse point, sucking softly before she soothes the bite with her tongue, and she can feel his lips curve up against her cheek before she kisses his lips.

The shop teacher clears his throat.

"What's up, Mr. Oakwood?" Jax asks, nodding. Tara stifles her laughter, pushing lightly at his shoulder to make him step back, and she extracts herself from his arms. "Tara isn't feeling great," Jax says. "I think she needs to go home. I'll give her a ride." He wraps an arm around her shoulder.

Mr. Oakwood sighs. "It's your education, Mr. Teller. The more you skip, the more you suffer."

"I'll think about that," Jax replies, and he pulls Tara closer for a kiss on the cheek as they walk out.

They get as far as the parking lot, because Jax keeps a key to the Volvo that Opie fixed up; it's not like they haven't had sex in the backseat before. Opie won't mind, or, well, what he can't stop won't hurt him. She leans back against the front seat afterward, pulling up her underwear but staying in his lap, and they snack on the chocolate Hostess cakes that Opie left up for grabs in the front seat.

It's quiet for a moment, the heat prickling along her skin.

"He isn't like that a lot, right?" Jax asks. His thumbs rub lazily against the skin over her waist.

She shakes her head. "Usually, it's like we're roommates, and that's it. I can't remember whether he was always a drunk. Always useless. I mean, I try to remember from before my mom died, but I can't really." She shrugs, taking her time as she unwraps another cake. "I hate him, but, I mean, he's my dad. He's my dad, and I love him. Something like that." She laughs a little. "I don't know."

"No, I get it," Jax says. "Can't help who your family is. Or when you love 'em."

She finishes her cake, starting to like the cake filling off her fingers, and he smiles. Biting her lip, she cups his face, her thumb to his lips. He sucks, and she starts to laugh, leaning forward to kiss him. "I love you," she says. If she gets to pick family, she picks him. Always, she picks Jax Teller.

He smiles against her mouth. "Love you, too."

They finish the Hostess snacks, deciding to borrow the car for a trip to the skating rink. The rink is closed until two, which means they can have the place to themselves. "But you have to figure out how to make the disco ball come down," she says. "It isn't worth the trouble without a disco ball. I have a strict policy not to skate without a disco ball." He promises to make the disco ball happen.

It's her idea to get a tattoo. She doesn't know why, but the idea appeals to her.

She tells Jax. Something simple, a rose pattern on her shoulder, or around her ankle. "What do you think?" she asks, rolling over on her stomach to look at him. She expects to have to drag his book away from him; it's some autobiography about a rock star that takes drugs like candy, and he hasn't stopped raving about it. But the book is closed, his finger marking his page. He is grinning at her.

"I think you'd look hot with a tat," he says.

She narrows her eyes at him. "What's the look on your face, Teller?"

Impossibly, his grin widens. He tosses his book down the bed, and she laughs, throwing a leg over his waist to straddle his lap, her hands on his shoulders. "How'd you feel about taking the crow?" he asks, eager. "It's something old ladies do. Get ink." His hand rubs the skin on her lower back. "It makes sure everybody knows you're Sam Crow. Makes sure they know you're mine."

She bites her lip. "But how will they know you're mine?" she says, raising her eyebrows at him.

"Babe, I'll shout that from the rooftops any day," he declares, and she laughs softly, shaking her head. He squeezes her hips. "It means you deserve respect. It means nobody messes with my girl."

His eyes are shining as he looks at her, and she sighs. "I guess roses don't do that," she says. He stares at her, waiting. "I'll think about it," she adds. It seems to satisfy him; he grins, rolling her under him suddenly, and his book thumps against the ground as he presses kisses along her spine.

In the end, she doesn't really think about it.

She grins up at the ceiling in the dark that night, and she drives to the garage before school the next morning. Jax is in the clubhouse, drinking beer with Ope at seven in the morning, and Tara comes up behind him, wrapping her arms around his neck. He tips his head back for a kiss. "Hey, babe."

"What do you want, sweetheart?" Tig asks from behind the bar.

She shakes her head. "I'm good. I've got school."

Tig grins, nodding. "Right. School." He starts to pour an IPA. "But, hey, Jackie says you're getting the crow. Gotta celebrate shit like that." Piney calls his name, and Tig slides the beer across the counter to her. "It's on me." He winks at her as he comes out from behind the counter, walking off.

Tara draws away from Jax to blink at him in amusement.

He shrugs. "Had to ask the club," he says, sheepish, "make sure they're okay with you taking it."

"We are," Opie adds, holding up his drink with a smile.

Tara takes the beer that Tig poured, and she taps glasses with the boys. "So. What's the plan?"

Apparently, the plan is to get wasted, stumble into the tattoo parlor a little after midnight, and let Jax convince her that a giant crow over her ass is a great idea. The needle doesn't hurt, but Opie says that's the alcohol. Tara props up her chin on her arms, grinning at the boys, and gets a tattoo.

The next day, the experience is a blur.

She vaguely remembers Jax fucking her from behind afterward, and she smirks to herself as she wears a button up that is a couple sizes small. She knows she is supposed to wear a bandage over the tattoo, but she doesn't. All she needs to do is stretch her arms, and the world sees the crow on her back. Jax comes up to her locker in school, sporting a stupid smile. "Nice tat, baby," he greets.

She smirks over her shoulder at him, shutting her locker.

As she struts off, she pulls up her shirt a little, wiggling her ass at him, and he whistles.

He drops out right before Christmas break; Opie dropped out a week before him.

Tara isn't surprised, honestly. Jax hasn't come to school regularly in over a year. "But, come on, you're smart enough to graduate without attending a day," she argues. Jax shrugs, saying he isn't going to need a diploma. Tara doesn't try to change his mind, but "I'll miss having you around."

"Hey, I'm not about to stop you from dropping out with me," he replies, grinning at her.

She rolls her eyes, and she steals the remote from him, because they've watched enough wrestling for the night. "I have a limit," she says, and he protests loudly when she flips to Savannah instead.

It isn't up to her whether or not he stays in school.

Fun Town comes to Charming in February, and Tara demands a prize.

"What kind?" Jax asks.

She shrugs. "I don't care. But I expect you to win the prize in some manly fashion." She smirks at him, and he kisses her quickly before Lowell hails them. He ends up winning her a giant purple teddy bear when he manages to shoot three wooden ducks in a row, and she totes the thing around as they go on every ride twice. They end the night eating blue cotton candy until Tara feels sick.

As they're about to leave, she realizes she hasn't been on the Ferris wheel yet.

The line was too long the entire night, and Jax kept dragging her off to faster rides.

"Line's gone now," Jax says. "Come on, we can go real quick."

But it's past one in the morning, and Fun Town is shutting down. Jax tries to talk the guy at the Ferris wheel into letting them on, but, "the park is closing, buddy," the carnie says, waving him off.

Jax isn't about to walk away, though; Tara knows that.

Otto strides up beside them, his arm around his tipsy, stumbling wife. "What's the matter?"

"It's nothing," Tara says, but Opie explains, and Otto raises his eyebrows at the carnie. Suddenly, Bobby is pulling a few twenties from his pocket, but Clay reaches out to stop him, and he asks the carnie whether the guy really wants to deny a nice, sweet girl from having a go on the Ferris wheel.

Kozik crosses his arms over his chest, and Tig moves to the operating board. The Ferris wheel lights up. "Go on, kiddies," he says, nodding. He looks at the carnie as though daring him to argue.

Tara gets to ride the Ferris wheel.

She is arrested with Jax three times that spring, but she isn't charged.

The worst is the speech Unser gives her about how she resisting cops isn't good for her record, and she blushes. She was drunk. She mumbles an apology, and Unser smiles at her, saying she is a good girl. "Get out before I change my mind about charging you," he says, nodding at the door.

She receives four large envelops in the mail in the week that follows that arrest.

They're from schools. They're acceptance letters. She was accepted into four schools, every place where she applied, and the envelops are stuffed with information about the schools, about accepted student days, about financial aid options. About scholarships. Her throat is dry as she reads them.

But she isn't going to college. She applied without thinking. She was angry, lonely, in a mood. Scholarships won't pay for everything, and taking out loans is a dangerous, complicated business.

Graduation is a few months away, and a high school diploma is enough.

Opie asks her out.

"No, I mean, like, on a date with Jax," he says. Tara smirks at him. "A double date, I mean," he says. Tara leans back in her chair, crossing her arms, amused. "Look, there's this girl, and I really like her. She's pretty, and she's sweet, and she's as smart as you are. I really want to impress her. Thing is, I think the club makes her nervous. She isn't from Charming." He looks eagerly at Tara.

She shakes her head. "I'm not sure I get what that has to do with me," she says.

"I figured, you know, going out with you would show her that we're normal guys, and we've got normal girlfriends. So. What do you think? Jax said he was cool with it, but that I should ask you."

Tara can't help grinning at how nervous he is. "Wow, you really like her."

"I do," he says, nodding.

She laughs. "Relax, Ope. It sounds fun. I'm in."

"Okay, that's great," he says, sagging in relief. "I actually might've told Donna that you guys wanted to go out before I asked. How's Friday at seven at Ruby Tuesday?" He smiles, apologetic.

She bites back another laugh. "Perfect."

She admits to Jax that she can't wait to meet the girl that makes Opie act like an idiot, but she isn't sure what to expect. Opie loves having girlfriends, going from serious relationship to serious relationship, but they don't seem to last, and Tara is thankful for that. She doesn't tend to like them.

She loves Opie, but his taste in woman is questionable.

The girl that he brings on Friday is small, wearing a pink cardigan over a sundress, and she smiles shyly at them as Tara steps off the bike to greet her. "I'm Donna Grant," she says, giving a little wave. Tara smiles, introducing herself. She thinks she'll get along with small, sweet Donna Grant.

Donna is from Pope, but her grandmother is sick, and she moved to Charming to look after her.

She really is as sweet as they come.

They go bowling after dinner, because Donna hasn't been in years. Tara isn't exactly an expert either, but she feels pretty confident in her granny role. The boys laugh until they're doubled over, and she smacks Jax in the chest, reminding him that the granny role is embarrassing yet effective.

"Whatever, babe," Jax says, smirking at her.

Donna proposes girls against guys, and they trounce the boys. Jax promises not to be a sore loser when Tara promises to kiss him until he feels better, and Opie throws a french fry at them. "This is a family venue," he exclaims. "Watch those hands, Teller!" Donna laughs, and Jax flips them off.

In the end, Tara deems the double date a success.

His mom finds an old camera film role in her basement, and pictures with Thomas are on it. Tara comes upstairs to see Jax on his bedroom floor, the developed photos circling him. Carefully, she sits beside him. The pictures he holds features him with his brother, side by side on their bicycles.

"He was a cute kid," she says. Jax nods. "What was he like?"

Jax shrugs. "I don't know. He was really quiet. Shy. Like — like he thought about everything before he said a word." He smiles a little, shaking his head as thought at himself. "He was smart. Really smart." She picks through the photos, laughing when she sees the one that features Thomas wiggling a loose tooth with his tongue right up close to the camera. He would've been like Jax.

Smart, smug, a prince in Charming.

Jax starts to tell a story about when he busted his head when he ran into a tree on his dirt bike, and Thomas tried to stem the blood flow with moss, because a character does that in an adventure novel he loved. Tara smiles, and Jax ends up with his head in her lap as they go through the photographs.

Jax is arrested for gun smuggling, and she doesn't find out until she stops by the garage.

Bobby explains that Jax was on a trip with Opie, Clay, and Kyle, and the police are blowing smoke up his ass because they can. "It ain't nothing to worry about, sweetheart," he assures, and she wants to believe him. But news travels fast around Charming. She finds out he was running guns on his trip, and he was charged. It's likely he'll serve time. In prison. She doesn't know what to do.

His mother posts bail, and Jax climbs through her bedroom window.

"Hey, babe," he greets, and she scrambles from the bed to hug him. A moment later, she socks him. "Jesus Christ!" He rubs his chest, but he nods, as though knows he deserves it. "I'm sorry."

She runs a hand through her hair. "Since when do you smuggle guns?" she exclaims. "Why are you smuggling guns? I heard people talking, and they're saying you could do real, serious time!"

"It's a club thing," he replies. That's it.

Gaping at him, she shakes her head. "I can't — I'm not okay with this, Jax. I'm not."

She knows the club gets into trouble like that, or she thinks she must've known. But it's different when they're talking about Jax, when it's Jax that goes on trial, Jax that might spend time in prison.

"The club keeps a lawyer on retainer," Jax replies. "We aren't gonna do time. If we do, it won't be more than six months. I'd be out before summer was over!" He looks imploringly at her, and she doesn't know to respond. She can't respond. "Tara. Shit happens. But it's gonna be okay, I swear."

He reaches for her, but she steps back, raising her hands to stop him. "Don't. Just — don't."

"Okay." He pauses. "Do you want me to leave? Tara. Do you want me to leave?"

She presses her hands to her face, shaking her head. "No. I don't know. This stuff scares me, Jax! I hate it! I can't help that. I can't help —" He surges forward, and she lets him this time. His t-shirt is worn, the material soft against her cheek. "Six months is a really long time to me," she whispers.

"It's long to me, too, but you — you gotta stay positive." His arms tighten around her.

Her positivity is tenuous in the next week, though. She goes through the motions as though as everything is normal, but nothing is normal, or this is, and she doesn't want normal. Is this what normal is to the club? Is this what her life is going to be like? It can't be. She can't live like this.

The charges are dropped before they go to trial. She doesn't know why, but apparently somebody with the police messed up, and the guys are let off on a technicality. The clubhouse is rowdier than usual in celebration, but Tara begs off. She knows she is supposed to be thrilled, but she can't be.

Jax comes looking for her.

He lets himself into her house, finding her cocooned in blankets on the couch. "Club's having a party, and you're watching Touched By An Angel," he says, picking up her legs to sit under them.

"It's a really popular show, you know," she mutters.

He strums his fingers against her foot, tickling her, and she kicks him in the stomach.

"Tara, come on, what's the matter? We got off."

She glances at him. "Yeah, you got off." But he doesn't understand. She pulls her legs away from him, moving to sit up. He starts to say her name, but she ignores him, crossing the hallway to her bedroom, dragging the blankets with her. "Hold on," she says. She grabs the letters from her desk.

He is standing when she returns to the living room, and she tosses them at him.

They scatter to the floor, but he bends to pick them up, and she returns to her spot on the couch, crossing her arms over her chest, waiting for his reaction. He looks up at her, his mouth hanging open. "I applied when we were fighting. I don't know why. Mrs. Hoover, or my aunt, or Dr. Bayliss. I don't know. I applied, and I got in. Four schools." She swallows thickly, refusing to cry.

"Tara," he says, as though he is at loss for something real to say.

She pulls her knees up to her chest. "I know you love the club. I know it's your family. But what about me? Yeah, you got off. This time. What about next time?" She stares imploringly at him, but he doesn't have a response. "I — I can't live like that," she says. "I mean, where were you even taking those guns? Who were you —? What else is — what else do you do? Do you sell drugs?"

"No," he interrupts, emphatic. "No, we aren't involved in shit like that."

She turns her face away from him as she wipes at her tears. "I guess I always thought when you went on those weekend trips with the club, or stuff like that, I guess I thought you were going to bike shows, or visiting other chapters, or just —" She laughs humorlessly to herself. "I'm an idiot."

He grasps her hands, pulling her gaze to him. "I didn't lie to you, Tara. When I said we were going to see the Tacoma chapter, or that we were at the bike show in San Diego, I was telling the truth. Look, the club is like family to me, but so are you. Jesus, babe, you're my — you're my old lady!"

"I don't — I don't want to be your old lady," she protests. "I don't want to be — I'm not Gemma."

He squeezes his hands. "I know that." He pauses, searching her face. "What do you want?" he asks. "Anything. Name it." His eyes are wet, imploring. "Tell me what I have to do to keep you."

She bites her lip, trying to stop herself from crying, but she can't. She squeezes her eyes shut, and he brings her hands to his lips, kissing her knuckles. She takes a deep breath. Looks at him. "Jax, you're not — you're not gonna lose me. But you have to remember that — that I'm here. That I can't handle you in prison, that the club isn't everything —" He surges up, holding her face, kissing her.

"I won't forget, baby, I swear," he murmurs, kissing and kissing her.

She wraps her arms around his neck. "I love you, Jackson," she whispers, closing her eyes.

"I love you, too," he says, and the words come out with reverence; they're a promise, and she clings to them as she hugs him. They stay like that until the oven timer goes off. She was baking herself brownies. She wipes at her tears as they break apart. "I picked up ice cream," he says, nodding at the grocery bag she didn't notice. It's abandoned on the floor, the ice cream melting.

She gets the brownies, and they eat on the living room floor.

Her graduation from high school is in June.

She goes out shopping for a dress with Mary, who brings her daughter, and Mary seems happy as they walk through the mall, as she pulls clothes off the racks, as she tells Tara to twirl. "I swear, I hate you for that ass," she says, making Tara laugh. It doesn't seem like Mary regrets dropping out.

The graduation is on the football field on a Saturday morning, and her father drives her.

She is surprised when walks into the kitchen to find him trying to put on a tie. She doesn't know how, and he doesn't seem to remember, but she calls Jax, who puts his mother on the phone to give Tara instructions. In the end, her father cleans up nicely. "Momma'd be real proud, baby," he says.

He hugs her, chuckling when he pulls back, because she is tearing up. She laughs with him.

The ceremony seems to drag on in the heat; Tara sweats through her dress.

But when her name is called, an uproar comes from the stadium, and she glances over to see Sam Crow standing on their seats, making as much noise as possible with their shouting and their noise makers and their whistling. She laughs, shaking her head, and lets them cheer as she crosses the stage. When the graduation is finished, the guys congratulate her, Luann Delaney presents her with roses, and Jax picks her up to swing her around. Opie hugs her, and Gemma gives her a kiss.

"We're happy for you, baby," she says. There's a coolness in her voice, but Tara ignores that.

The guys got a cake for her. "We love a good party," Kyle says. "Congrats, kid." Tara smiles in thanks, leaning back against Jax, who wraps his arms around her waist. She tilts her head to look at him, and he kisses her temple. Bobby puts Dishwalla on, and Tara laughs; they're her favorite.

It's a good day, the best in a long, long time.

The summer heat that year is awful; Tara feels like she might melt every time she walks outside.

Stacy gets married three weeks after graduation. When Tara hugs her in congratulations at the reception, Stacy smiles. "I guess you'll probably be next!" she says, pulling Tara back into the hug.

Tara doesn't know what to say, but she manages a smile as Stacy moves to greet somebody else.

Tara glances at Jax, who is making obscene thrusting motions while in conversation with Opie.

She snorts to herself. He is like a five-year-old, or, on second thought, a horny fourteen-year-old.

The first week in July, she gets a job at the bookstore. The man that runs the place, Mr. Henderson, wants somebody to help around the shop now that his arthritis is getting worse, and Tara finds the prospect infinitely better than waitressing. The pay is ten dollars an hour and ten percent off books.

Jax goes on a trip with the club in August, and she doesn't hear from him for three days.

But he comes crawling in her bedroom window at four in the morning on a Wednesday, and he smells like stale sweat and unwashed clothes. "Came right over," he murmurs, kissing her, and she doesn't bother to ask where he was. The next morning, he apologies for not calling. "Clay was on my ass the whole time, saying I should focus on the club," he says, leaving his explanation at that.

She tries not to care. She doesn't want to know.

It gets breezy in September, and Tara avoids eye contact with Mrs. Hoover in the grocery store.

She starts to grow restless as summer fades away, because she doesn't know what happens next, and something needs to happen next. Is this it? Is this her life? Donna tells her that she should sign up for classes at the community college half an hour outside Charming. "It's what I'm going to do after I graduate," she says, smiling. Tara drives out to the school, looking through their pamphlets.

But every class costs the money, and she doesn't see what the point is.

Her aunt calls on Thanksgiving. "How are you, sweetheart?" she asks.

Tara brings up community classes; her aunt is good at giving advice about this stuff. "I'm not sure about signing up for classes," she says. "It's money I don't really have. But I feel like I should do something now that I've graduated, and I don't want to be stuck working at the bookstore forever."

The line is quiet. "Sweetie, I've actually been meaning to talk to you about that."

"What do you mean?" Tara asks, frowning.

Aunt Barbara sighs. "Do you remember when you told me that you decided not to attend college? I didn't — I didn't really agree with that decision, and I thought you might regret making it. Look, I know this was a little inappropriate, but I told San Diego that you wanted to defer your acceptance for a year. I filled out the form, citing financial reasons, and, um, and they agreed to let you defer."

"Wait, what are you saying?" She doesn't understand.

"I'm saying that the UC San Diego expects you to start your freshmen year next August. Oh, Tara, I'm sorry I went behind your back like that, but you deserve to go to college. To do something spectacular with your life. Tara, you're smart, and you are better than Charming. I mean, I know you have friends in Charming, and there's your boyfriend, but what do you want for your future?"

Tara is speechless, listening to her aunt. "I can't afford college," she manages.

"Honey, you can!" Aunt Barbara exclaims. "I mean, you can live with me, which saves housing costs, and they have financial aid for students. A few federal loans, and you're ready to go! Plus, I bet you could get a couple scholarships. We can go the library, do a little research, figure it out!"

Her aunt goes on, and she saves her best ammunition for last.

"Just think about the idea, sweetie. It's what your momma wanted. Oh, baby, she used to talk about how smart you were when you were only five years old! Bragging about how you were already reading picture books, and you were sharp as a tack! Tara, your momma wanted more for her daughter." She pauses. "Look, you're always welcome to come stay with me. Just think about it."

Tara nods in the empty kitchen. "Okay. I'll think about it."

She doesn't know why she asks him, but Jax isn't in town, and they're sitting in the living room, and she can't help herself. "Hey, Daddy," she starts, "if I went to live with Aunt Barbara, would you be okay with that?" She hasn't stopped thinking about every point her aunt made three weeks earlier.

He looks away from his baseball game. "Sure, baby," he says, and he smiles at her.

His gaze returns to the television a moment later, and Tara sinks into the couch cushions, wishing someone else would take over her life, make the decisions, tell her what she's supposed to do next.

It's easier not to make a decision.

She stays in Charming, works at the bookstore, spends her free time with Jax. She finds out Stacy is pregnant in November, but she begs off from the baby shower that Mary wants to throw for her.

Honestly, Mary doesn't really seem to care whether Tara comes or not.

A few weeks into January, Jax is supposed to pick her up after his shift at the garage to take her to see a movie, but he doesn't show up. She calls his house, but nobody picks up. She ends up falling asleep on the couch to infomercials about shampoo that miraculously helps balding men grow hair.

Jax never shows up. She drives over to the garage the next morning.

Nobody is working, and she finds half the club passed out in the clubhouse.

They're scatted among naked woman, vomit on the floor beside the bar. She doesn't see Clay, Opie, or Jax, but everybody else seems to be there. Tara weaves her way towards the bedrooms, because she doesn't know where else to look. She finds Jax, and he is alone. That isn't what stops her heart.

A nasty, purpling bruise spans his hip, disappearing under his boxers, and three large bruises sprinkle his chest. They're from bullets, she realizes. Someone shot at him, and he must've been wearing protection, but that doesn't negate the fact that someone tried to kill him. He almost died.

Her gaze travels around the room, falling on the clothes he must've stripped off last night.

Her hands shake as she touches the holes torn in his shirt, as she realizes that his jeans are stained with brown blood. God, no. She stumbles backwards, leaving the bedroom, leaving the clubhouse.

She needs to go to work.

The day passes impossibly slowly, and she is unable to focus. She can't handle doing the balance sheets, and she hides in the shelves, making the books line up exactly right, avoiding other people.

Jax comes in a few minutes after closing, sneaking up behind her.

She gasps, bumping into the shelf with the adult fantasy novels. She rubs her elbow as he chuckles, apologizing. A moment later, his smile starts to dim. "Hey, I'm sorry about last night. I know I was an ass. I should've called. But I was out late with the club, and I just crashed the moment we got back. I slept in my bedroom in the back. I'll make it up to you, though. Promise."

"Okay," she says, crossing her arms over chest. "Okay, you can make it up to me. Why you don't start by explaining why you got shot last night? Or how about why you had blood on your jeans?"

He stares at her. "I don't —"

"I went to the clubhouse this morning. I was looking for you. I found you. So. Care to explain?"

Jax sighs, pressing his palms to his eyes for a moment before he runs his hands through his hair and meets her gaze. "It was club stuff. We pissed off another club. Things got a little messed up."

Anger twists her stomach. "A little messed up," she repeats. "Okay. Thanks. I feel so much better."

"Tara, don't be like that."

She turns away from him. "I'm not being like anything," she says. "But I think I need a little while to think. Things in my head are a little messed up. But don't worry." He doesn't listen, following her into the cooking section, and she needs Mr. Henderson to appear, to ask her to do some chore.

"Hey, hey, just stop for a second," Jax says, grabbing her arm.

She whirls around. "Do you really want to live like this?" she exclaims, the words pouring out. "I mean, seriously, this is what you want? Is this how it's supposed to work when we're married, when we have kids? What happens when the bullet actually gets you? What am I supposed to do?"

"It's not always like this," he protests.

"It shouldn't ever be like this!"

They stare at each other, and her anger starts to deflate into tears that she won't cry. He must see her shoulders slump, must know that her bite is gone, because he reaches out to touch her arms, and she steps towards him automatically, leaning to rest her forehead against her chest. It's habit.

"I should've called you," he says softly, and she looks up at him. "I'm sorry."

She shakes her head. "It's not about that. This doesn't have to be our life. There is more out there, Jax. What if we leave? Just — just go?" She steps away from him. "What if I leave? What if —?"

He kisses her.

She doesn't have time to stop him, to react to his sudden lurch towards her; the kiss is forceful, possessive, bruising her lips, and she sinks against him despite herself, sinks into the kiss, because he is Jax, and he is supposed to be hers, and she can't not kiss him back when he is kissing her.

But this can't be her life.

Gemma comes into the bookstore, and Tara knows that isn't good news.

Of course, Gemma puts on a show, browsing through a few recipe books before grabbing one off the shelf and coming up to the register. "Morning, Tara," she greets, and Tara musters up a perfunctory smile. "I didn't see a price on this." She holds out the book. Tara looks at the back, finding the price over the barcode. "Oh, there it is," Gemma says. "Thanks. So. How are things?"

"Fine," Tara says. "Do you, um, do you want the cookbook?"

Gemma nods. "Sure. How's work?"

"It's, ah, it's good. It's better than working as a hostess."

"I'll bet," Gemma says. "Thinking about a future in the book industry?" She raises her eyebrows, and that's it, that's why she came in. "Of course, you always got yourself a job in the TM office."

Tara smiles, nodding. "Yeah. What's with the questions? Something the matter?"

"I'm just checking in," Gemma says. "Seeing if things are good with you. I mean, seems to me like you're a little bit restless. Not thinking about running off on us, are you?" She smiles like she told a joke, and Tara chuckles humorlessly, ringing up the cook book. "Well?" Gemma asks. "Are you?"

"Why do you care?" Tara replies.

It never fails to amaze her how Gemma thinks she deserves to know everything about everyone.

"Can't I care about your future?" Gemma smiles. "Jax says you don't much care for Charming. Says you've thought about getting out. Applied to school. God. I guess you're a pretty smart girl."

Tara nods. "Look, Gemma, if I don't want to stay in this — this incestuous, small-minded, backwards town, that isn't your business. My decisions, my life — you don't get a say in that."

Gemma puts her hands flat on the counter, leaning in. "Honey, my son is my business. I don't have a problem with you leaving, but I have a problem with you filling my son's head with your shit." Her lip curls. "I know you think Jax belongs with you, but I am not about to let some pussy make decisions for him. If you want don't want to stay in Charming, fine. Go. But this is where Jax belongs, and he ain't leaving." She straightens, picking up the book. "I changed my mind. Sorry."

She tosses the book back onto the counter, slipping on her sunglasses as she struts out.

Tara stares at the book, her elbow brushing the open register drawer. She slams it shut.

It's not that she is completely miserable in Charming. She isn't.

Donna gets her house to herself the first weekend in May, and she calls Tara to hang out. They make plans to listen to her record collection, eat cookie batter, and drink wine coolers, a perfect girls' night. But the guys crash, arriving at the house with beer around midnight. Tara spins around from where she dances on the couch, beaming at them while she sings into an empty wine cooler.

Pat Benatar is the best.

A moment later, Donna squeals in excitement.

"Opie!" she exclaims, dancing her way towards him. "I'm tipsy!" she announces, propelling herself up on her tiptoes to wrap her arms around his neck. Opie laughs, kissing her, and Jax grins at Tara.

She points at him as she belts out the lyrics. "That's okay," she sings, "let's see how you do it! Put up your dukes, let's get down to it! Hit me with your best shot!" She bounces around on the couch, raising her arms over her head, and Donna hops over to join her as they sing to each other. "Why don't you hit me with your best shot? Hit me with your best shot! Fire away!" Tara stumbles off the couch, laughing as she dances her way to Jax. She fists her hands in his shirt, smirking at him.

He lets her drag him to the couch, laughing when she pushes him down.

"Hit me with your best shot!" she sings, and he reaches out to hold her hips as she climbs onto his lap. "Why don't you hit me with your best shot? Hit me with your best shot! Fire away!" She rolls her hips, dipping her head back to spy Donna, dancing in a circle around Opie. She laughs, lifting her head back up to face Jax. She walks her fingers up his chest. "Well, you're the real tough cookie with the long history," she sings, shaking her boobs, "of breaking little hearts like the one in me. Before I put another notch in my lipstick case, you better make sure you put me in my place!"

She tears open the first few snaps on her shirt, rocking forward, and Jax laughs, his hands sliding up from her hips to run along her back. "Hit me with your best shot! Come on, hit me with your best shot! Hit me with your best shot! Fire Away!" She laughs into his mouth. "Jackie, I'm drunk!"

"I noticed, babe," he says, grinning. "I ain't complaining."

She giggles, kissing him, and she is happy that night.

But the next morning, nothing's changed. What's supposed to happen next?

In the end, she makes the decision without realizing it.

She is at the club, sipping a vodka cranberry as she pretends to listen to Opie wax poetic about how much he adores Donna, and her gaze lands on Jax, shooting pool with a man called Chibs, who is apparently in the Irish chapter. She stares at him, and she thinks about how she is going to get him to leave with her. That's it. She is leaving. How is she going to get him to leave with her?

It doesn't really work out the way she plans.

They go to see Donna star in the spring play, and Donna brings up community college classes when they take her out for ice cream afterward with Opie. Tara says she doesn't think community college is for her, which starts a conversation with Jax back at the house. He asks why she isn't interested; he would've thought she would be. He is curious, and suddenly everything comes out.

She begs him.

"We can stay with my aunt," she says, "or we can go somewhere else. Wherever you want, it doesn't matter to me! I don't care. I don't have to go to school. But I have to get out. Please, Jax."

She begs, and he clenches his jaw. "I'm not about to walk out on the club," he says.

"This isn't about the club!" she exclaims. "Jax, I can't stay in Charming. This place is killing me! It's like drowning, and every day it's worse, and I'm deeper and deeper, and the pressure is worse, and I can't stay! I want more than this. I need more than this. I don't understand how you can't!"

"I don't want more than this," he says. "All I want is you, and I thought I had you."

She balls her hands into fists. "No, that's not — you do have me, but —"

"But you want to run off to where the fuck ever," he cuts in. "Tara, you belong with me! We belong together!" He reaches forward suddenly, yanking up her shirt in the back, showing off the tattoo. "What about this? Have you forgotten about this? Doesn't this mean anything to you?"

She jerks away from him. "I was drunk! It means I was drunk — and I love you!" She stares imploringly at him. "It means I love you. I got this tattoo for you, and I'm asking you to leave this stupid, suffocating town with me! Please!" She swipes furiously at her tears. "I don't want to leave without you. Please. There's nothing for us in Charming. And there is a whole world out there."

Why can't he see that?

"I can't leave, Tara," he says, and his voice is softer. "I can't just walk out on the club. I don't want to walk out on the club. But I love you. Just — just let me know what you decide." He starts to back away, turning away from her, leaving. He pauses at the door, his back to her. "I love you."

She can't respond.

He leaves, and she sinks onto the couch, covering her face with her hands.

The next two days are awful. She tries to figure out how to put the pieces together, how to make everything word. What if they went on a road trip? They wouldn't be leaving for good, only for a while, a chance to do something different. They would come back eventually, or plan to come back.

She goes to the clubhouse to talk to him.

It's a mistake, because it's at the clubhouse that Gemma brings everything to a head.

Everybody is in the clubhouse, because the guys were in church, talking about whatever trouble they're going to get into next, and they come filing out at the same moment that Gemma arrives, making a beeline for Tara. She looks ready for a fight, and Tara wants nothing more than to run.

"I was at St. Thomas," Gemma starts, "visiting Luann after her surgery, and I ran into Dr. Bob Bayliss. Real interesting man. We talked, and he happened to mention you. Guess what he said?"

Tara shakes her head, her gaze darting to Jax. "I don't know," she murmurs. "What?"

"He says that he thinks you're brilliant," Gemma says, stepping closer. "He says he wrote you a recommendation for college, and he was disappointed when he found out that you weren't attending, only to find out that you were deferring your attendance for a year. He was real, real happy about that. I mean, wasn't that great?" Her gaze is sharp, cutting. "Wasn't I thrilled for you?"

It's quiet. The clubhouse is quiet, and everyone is staring at them.

"So." Gemma tilts her head. "When were you gonna let us in on that secret?"

"It isn't — it isn't that simple," Tara starts.

Gemma scoffs. "It seems pretty simple to me. Tara Knowles is planning on getting out."

Tara stares at her, and she wants to be furious with her, to scream at her, to slap that look off her face. Who is Gemma to act like this? Gemma isn't her mother, and Tara isn't patched into Sam Crow. Gemma doesn't have a right to an opinion, or to act like Tara needs her permission to leave.

Opie looks apologetic, Clay is impassive, and Otto wears an unreadable expression.

Jax says that the guys in the club love her. They do, but it's on their terms, and she isn't Gemma. She isn't Donna. She isn't an old lady, and she can't swallow the things an old lady is supposed to.

They club stares at her. Jax doesn't. Jax stares at the floor.

Her chest tightens. She spent two days trying to come up with some compromise. No. No, she spent months trying to find a compromise, a way to keep Jax and to have a better life. But he isn't about to compromise for her. He loves her, but it isn't about her. It's the club that he loves most.

In that moment, she thinks she might hate him.

She takes a deep breath. She won't cry while they're staring at her. She won't. "I guess I am," she answers, trying to smile. "Congratulations, Gemma. Looks like you were right about everything."

Nobody says a word as she walks out the door.

She dials the number before she changes her mind, sinking to sit on the kitchen floor with the phone pressed to her ear, the chord curled around her arm. "Hey, Aunt Barbara, it's me," she says, and her aunt exclaims happily in greeting. Tara tangles her fingers in the phone chord. "I'm, um, I'm actually calling to see whether your offer still stands. For me to come stay with you, I mean."

"Of course, sweetheart!" Aunt Barbara says. "I'm ready for you whenever!"

Tara takes a deep breath, her grip tightening on the phone. "What about next weekend?"

She doesn't talk to Jax as the week passes. She hears that Otto is arrested, and they're saying he'll spend five years in prison. That's the club. It's poison, ruining lives with the promise that the club is family, that the club is good for them, that the club is what matters most. It's what Jax believes.

Tara can't do that. She can't live like that.

She doesn't talk to Jax that week, and the weekend arrives.

Her car is packed, but she doesn't know how she is supposed to leave without saying goodbye.

He solves that problem, though, when she walks outside with the last box to find him sitting on the porch steps. She sits beside him, resting the box on her knees, but he doesn't react, doesn't look at her, doesn't say a word, and she hugs the box to her chest. It's humid out. Her throat starts to close.

"I guess you're going," he says.

She stares at her hands. "I guess you're staying," she replies.

He turns to her suddenly, and a sob bubbles up in her throat at the look at his face. "Why do we have to break up?" he asks. "I mean, San Diego isn't that far, and I know that shit is hard, but I love you, and we can — we can stay together." She starts to shake her head, but he takes her face in his hands, and he kisses her. She holds his hands against her cheeks, her tears splashing hotly against her fingers, crying as he kisses her. "Tara, please," he whispers, his forehead against hers.

He is begging. He is trying to compromise. It's what she wanted.

But she draws away from him, swiping at her eyes. "It wouldn't work, and you know that." He nods, sniffing. He won't look at her. "I don't want you to hate me," she whispers, trying not to cry.

She doesn't hate him. She can't. She doesn't know how to hate him.

He glances at her. "I don't know how to hate you," he says, and her stomach clenches. His voice is bitter, as though he wants to hate her, as though he wishes he hated her. "Why are you doing this?"

"I have to go," she says, imploring him to understand. "It's not that I don't love you. I do. But I want to go to school, Jax. I want to have a career. Be a doctor, or do — do something worthwhile. I don't know. I don't know what I want to do, but I know I want to do something. I want to go to new places, to meet new people, and I want to like who I am, and I can't in Charming. I've tried."

He stares at her, and she presses her lips together, trying to hold back her tears. "So this is it."

"I can't stay," she whispers. "If I stayed, I would be staying for you, and you would be my whole life. But you can't make somebody else your whole life. If it were that easy, you could leave with me, and I could be your whole life. But you know that you can't do that. I can't be your whole life, and you can't be my whole life. I'm sorry, Jax." She can't stop crying. "I don't want to leave you."

She presses her hands into her face, surging up onto her feet a moment later.

She stalks to the car. Puts the box in the last space left in the back. That's it. The car is packed.

Jax stands, his hands in his pocket. She stares at him, and he crosses the distance in three strides, grasping her face as he kisses her, and her legs are shaky beneath her. She curls her hands into her hair, trying to memorize everything about him as he kisses her, knowing this what she'll have left.

Abruptly, he steps away. He stares at the ground.

She smoothes the hair back from her face, turning on her heel. She said goodbye to her dad last night, which means this is it. She opens the front seat door. It's the car he made for her, and she's leaving him in it. She glances back, and she tries to smile at him. "Goodbye, Jax," she murmurs.

He nods. "Good luck." His voice is rough.

She wants to say something. Thanks, or I love you, or please come with me, please, please. But she doesn't say anything, trembling with tears as she sits in the car, pulling the door shut. It's quiet.

In the end, she pulls the car off the road three miles outside Charming to cry, but she does it. Leaves. She cries until her head hurts, but she manages to get back on the road, and she leaves.

She spends the summer staring at a phone. But she doesn't call him, because she needs a clean break, and he won't call her. She knows he won't. If she drove back to Charming, he would take her back in a heartbeat. She knows that, and she lies awake at night thinking about that. But he won't call her. He won't ask her to come back. He won't come looking for her. He won't beg her.

It gets easier when she starts school. She never does call him.

In her senior year at UC San Diego, she starts to date a guy named Mark.

It's her first real relationship since Jax, because it's the first time she feels like she isn't cheating, like there isn't a secret plan to go back to Charming when she graduates, to find Jax, to try to do everything better. Mark talks about taking a road trip across the country, and they actually go on it.

They break up in her second year at medical school, because he asks her to marry him.

She dates a couple people after that, but it's never more than coffee, or going to see a movie.

Her first day as an intern at Chicago Presbyterian, she patches up an ATF agent with bruised knuckles. His smile is sweet, and he says her name in a funny way, making her laugh. He stops by the hospital four days later, and he asks her out. He wins her over with a card on arbor day, a coffee when she is tired. She falls for him carefully, the way you're supposed to fall for a person.

It's over a year before they start sleeping together.

Her dresser features three framed pictures, and he looks at them one morning.

Her mother with her when she was a baby, her aunt waving happily at the camera on the day Tara graduated from college, and Jax smirking at something. It's been years, but loving Jax is in her bones. She keeps her tattoo to remind herself that she managed to get out. She keeps the photo to remind herself that something wonderfully imperfect was in her life once upon a time. She likes it.

It's not as though she hasn't moved on, falling for Mark. Falling for Joshua.

She doesn't start to realize something is off until she finds the picture torn up in the trash.

She is thirty years old, and the papers nearly slip from her hand when she sees him.

But he grins boyishly at her, and her heart pounds against her chest, because Jackson Teller is standing three feet away from her, grinning, and she tightens her hold on the folders in her hands.

"I heard you were back," he says. She nods. She knew she would see him at some point, but she isn't prepared for this, his smile, the stupid swagger in his walk that hasn't changed in eleven years, the way he looks at her. "I guess you're a doctor." She laughs a little, nodding. "That's great, Tara."

He came to see her. He heard she was back in town, and he stopped by the hospital to see her.

"Thanks," she murmurs, clearing her throat. "It's really good to see you. I've, um, I've missed you."

He smiles. "I missed you, too," he says, and he reaches for her.

It's awkward, hugging him for the first time in years, and she tries to brush off the awkwardness with a laugh, wrapping her arms around him. She closes her eyes, taking a deep breath. He smells like Jax, and she thinks she might cry. He starts to pull away, chuckling when she brushes at her eyes. "Sorry," she says. "I'm being silly." She shakes her head, but his stupid smile doesn't waver.

How much has changed? What is his life like? What happens next?

"I brought you something," he says. He turns back to the chairs where he was waiting to grab the grocery bag. "It's to welcome you back to the neighborhood." He holds out the bag, and she laughs when she pulls out the chocolate pudding snack packs. His grin widens, and she can't believe him.

"Funny," she says, giving him a dry look.

He nods, and he reaches forward to touch her hip, a sweet, familiar gesture. "I'll see you around."

She watches him walk down the hallway. He glances over his shoulder to smile at her before he turns the corner, and she waves like a dork at him. It's as though she is fifteen. His smile widens into a grin, and he disappears. She doesn't know what she's doing back in Charming. The house is a wreck, and Joshua is bound to find her eventually, and she feels like a car speeding off the road.

But she looks at the pudding cups, and she smiles.


And I would do it for you, for you
Baby, I'm not moving on.
I love you long after you're gone.
For you, for you.
You would never sleep alone
I love you long after you're gone
And long after you're gone, gone, gone.