Tara remembers her father sitting her down and telling her that she, they, were different. She was lying on her stomach on the floor in the living room, feet kicking along to the rattle of a Zeppelin song over the radio as she colored in a dolphin, blue and white crayons smoothed together on the page. He had pulled her to sit on the couch, kneeled in front of her and explained what would happen, what it would be like and that she's right to be as terrified as she is.
She was five years old.
It took another year for her to understand why her mother was so angry. When she even bothered to come home at all. Her father was from Ireland, landing in southern California after years of drifting west along coastlines. Her mother had lived her entire life in California, never needing more or different. Tara was born four years after that, two years after her parents met.
Tara is seven and she knows what her mother can't, or chooses not to. The phantom weight of her mother's jealousy, her father's hopes, her own determination, lay across her back in a skin she will someday slip into at high tide.-
Her mother had left three months before, throwing glasses and words to cut her down to nothing. She's twelve. It was when she realized that her mother had always been, will always be too much, burning too hot. She was a flame and she could either smoke and sizzle until she was smothered or burn bright. Tara didn't begrudge her that, not even when her departure sent her father straight from the ocean to the bottle.
They move to Charming. It's just her and her father now, and sitting in the front seat the entire drive up from San Diego is nothing but a sharp stab of guilt in her chest. Tara doesn't understand why they move there of all places. It's suffocatingly dry; they've never been so far inland. Her father had made sure the house they bought had a huge swimming pool in the backyard, has it emptied, cleaned, and refitted for salt water and she's grateful for that at least. She's too young for her skin still, but that doesn't stop her from spending as much time as she can in the water until the start of the school year.
She gets placed in the seat next to one Jackson "Call me Jax" Teller for every one of her morning classes. She doesn't notice it at first, can't connect the dots as well as she thinks she should be able to, but there's something about him that sets her on edge. They watch a discovery channel special on corvids in their science class two months and a dozen whispered arguments later.
It clicks, skin ruffling scents brought sharply into focus so suddenly she has to fight down a wave of nausea as his grin goes crooked. She sits next to him for the rest of the year, jaw clenched and face kept carefully blank. He doesn't leave her be, keeps picking and poking until she snaps. It is so characteristically accurate for him to do so, she could laugh.
She's on her way out, throwing away broken pencils and scrap paper from her otherwise empty locker on the last day of school, when that happens. He bumps into her, shoulder shoving her into the row of lockers and her book bag goes skidding down the hall.
He grins, like he always does, so it's more of a leer, but something slides home in her mind. She looks up at Jax (Harry is there too, barely a recognized threat though he's already the tallest boy in school.) and sees a boy, logic telling her that's all he can be even as the shadow of the bird he is stretches it's wings and every other part of her is screaming scavenger, murderer swim away, fasterfasterdeeperhurry!
She gathers her things, the sound of their laughter clawing at her insides and she runs the whole way home. Her heart pounding in her chest doesn't slow until she's pulled herself free of her clothes, dropping the bathtub and letting the water lap at her skin until she's calm.-
It's the night before her fourteenth birthday and Tara has had a fever of 103 for long enough she fears brain damage. Her father lifts her out of bed and puts her in the tub, is at her side the whole time, miraculously sober. He tells her about the first time he slipped into his skin, how in Ireland it was a tradition for the whole family to come together and swim as he carries her out of her bedroom. They don't adhere to it as much now, he shrugs it off when she asks if his family did when he changed the first time.
She starts to feel it than, a stirring sensation tingling up from her toes, warmth spreading from the center of her chest outward. Her father has set her down in the shallow end of the pool, walked off to find something as soon as she was in the salt water.
There's a soft snuffling sound, a quiet bark. The slap of something sliding into water. She blinks, eyelids slow and fever heavy. She glances down at her body only it isn't hers. Except that it is completely. She looks up, all traces of her ailments gone and makes a face she hopes comes across as a smile, and her father barks a laugh. She swims.-
She's sixteen when she sees Jax for the first time. Of course that's not exactly true, she's spent the last four years watching him run middle school and then high school like he owned the place. Much of that time she's spent avoiding him as best she could. It's their lunch hour, Jax and his handful of friends perched on tabletops and leaning against walls and some one makes a joke, they all laugh at it but it doesn't seem sincere coming from his mouth the way it usually does. She notes that slouch, can almost see the weight of what he is, what his family wants him to be draped across his back and sympathizes fiercely in spite of herself.
Tara has always been a strong swimmer. The last two years, spending weekends in her pool and breaks from school at the coast, she's only improved. Jax glances up, looks across the yard at her and catches her watching him. Tara takes a deep breath and his face softens into a genuine smile, nothing like she's used to seeing on his face or directed towards her. His eyes sparkle, bright and as blue as the early morning sky over water.
Suddenly, she's drowning.