Monday was nearly unbearable. Every time Tara walked with her friends between classes, she feared the inevitable run-in with with Willow. What were the odds, she wondered, of going the whole day without bumping into her? Willow could probably answer that. There was one close call. After social studies, Tara caught sight of a head of red hair bent over the water fountain further down the hallway. Luckily, Cordelia picked that exact moment to stop at her locker, and by the time she had retrieved her books, Willow was nowhere to be seen.
At lunch, she sat with her usual crowd. Whenever the conversation at the table lulled, she scanned the room for the girl, knowing they shared the same lunch period. There she was. Standing in line with that guy ... Xander. Xander Harris. Cordelia always cracked jokes about him, too, although Tara could never figure out why. He seemed like a likeable fellow. Hm. She was getting ... oh, no. Willow. Hot Fries and Jell-o? Tara shook her head. How could somebody live on a diet like that?
"TARA. Yoo hoo." She snapped her head around to find a table of faces giggling at her. Not Cordelia--she just looked confuesd.
"Sorry. Zoned out. What did you say?"
"Who is it?"
"Who is what?"
"She wants to know who you're staring at," Anya said. "Somebody in line?"
Hm. Well, as long as they're already making assumptions ... Tara turned back to watch the line. "Maybe."
"Oh my god. You can't do that!" Harmony insisted. "Who is it?"
"Is he in the front of the line, or the back?" Cordelia tried. Tara wouldn't play.
"Come on, Tara. Just a hint. Is he wearing jeans?"
"Can you tell which way she's looking?"
"You'll never guess," Tara said.
Anya stuck her head right next to Tara's and tried to sight along her gaze.
She sucked in a sharp breath, and her eyes widened. She cupped her hands to Tara's ear and whispered, "it's not *Xander,* is it?*
Whoa ... that was way too close. Tara purposefully shifted her gaze to somebody further back in the line. "Even if it was, I wouldn't say one way or the other."
"WHO?!" Cordelia demanded.
"It might be Xander," Anya shared.
"Xander?! You're not serious."
"I didn't say it was Xander," Tara said, shrugging mildly. This was actually kind of fun.
Anya, clearly deciding her guess was spot-on, jumped to Tara's defense. "Well, you know, despite his ... clumsiness ... uh, nerdiness ... complete lack of taste ... and ... I mean ... he *is* kind of cute."
"Cute?" Cordelia was dumbstruck. "We're talking about Xander Harris, here. He's a total dweeb."
"Right. With a killer body." She took a sip of her soda. "What? I'm just saying."
The stare-down was interrupted by the clatter of silverware and breaking glass. Everyone at the table turned their attention toward the lunch line, where Xander and Willow were both crouched, trying to mop up a mess on the floor.
Deep breath. Okay, Tare. This is your cue. Be brave. Here we go. Stand up. Ignore the weeks of taunting you might endure and potential ruination of your tentative social standing.
Tara Maclay remained rooted to her seat.
"Thanks for the ride," Tara told her brother as they pulled up to the curb of the Rosenberg residence after school.
"Yeah, no prob. Out out out," he demanded. She hopped quickly from the car, and barely had time to wave goodobye when he pulled away from the side of the road. Who really knew what Donny was up to this afternoon? Tara wasn't really interested in what he got up to with his friends.
She chuckled. Donny had been so excited when their parents had said he could use their car in case of emergencies. Since they'd left, he truly redefined the term "emergency."
It felt strange, letting herself into a house that wasn't her own, but the Rosenbergs had insisted that they come right in while they were guests.
She got her homework out of the way early. It was funny; she always would leave it til the last minute, when she was home. But here, it seemed as good a way to pass the time as any. At least while Willow was away. Hm, what club was Willow at today? Were those things any fun? With Willow there, they probably would be. Tara was in the middle of wondering whether she could get away with attending one of the after-school clubs unnoticed when she heard the front door bang open.
Voices floated up the stairs. A Willowy voice.
Tara hurried to the top of the stairs, and when Willow rounded the corner, she paused at the bottom.
"... Hey," said Tara.
"Hi," said Willow. She smiled. It looked forced.
Tara moved to the side when Willow dragged her bookbag up the stairs. Once at the top, the girl paused. "I have a new nickname," she announced.
"A new ... what?" Tara frowned.
Her frown increased. "That's not very original."
Willow slipped past her and entered her room. She dumped her pack unceremoniously.
Tara hovered just outside the doorway. "Can I ... ?"
Willow nodded, then busied herself gathering up rumpled clothing on the floor and depositing each article into a hamper.
Tara stepped in. "Willow, I'm sorry."
"You? For what?"
"For ... acting like we ... like we never ... I--I saw you at lunch, and I wanted to ..." She groaned. "I'm a total chicken," she finally said.
"You didn't do anything," Willow said.
"Exactly. I should have."
She shook her head. "No, that's not what I meant. I mean, you're not one of the ... jerks."
"... Yeah. I kind of am, Willow. I mean, even *Anya* stood up for Xander ... kind of. In a distinctly Anyaesque manner."
From somewhere lower in the house, Mrs. Rosenberg's shrill voice called out, "Willow? Would you come help pick up downstairs?'
"Yeah, mom. Just a sec," she called back.
She turned back to Tara. "Sorry, I've got to ..." She indicated the door.
Tara stepped closer and nudged Willow's chin higher. "I'm sorry," she said again.
Willow blinked. "Uh. You're forgiven?" Her eyes flicked to Tara's lips for a split second.
"Willow!" Mrs. Rosenberg demanded.
"Tomorrow will be better," Tara promised.
Willow gulped, her eyes now fixated on Tara's mouth. "Okay ... um, today's ... uhhh ... today is okay, too."
Tara averted her gaze. "I don't think I shou ..." The end of her statement was muffled by Willow's lips. She was at first too stunned to react, but then a thought shouldered its way into Tara's head. This was Willow. Willow lips. On hers. Opportunity. Passing. Don't waste.
"Willow? Can you hear me?"
Willow pulled away, her lower lip popping out from between Tara's. "Mom, I'll be right there!"
She looked apologetically at Tara. "Um, I should ... sorry." She wriggled out of her arms and moved to the door. "Do you want to ... after dinner, maybe ... um, play a game or something?"
"God, I'm *so sorry* you have to stay over there. What a crock," Cordelia sighed.
Tara paced slowly across the Rosenberg's back yard, her cell phone pressed to her ear.
"It was nice of them to let us stay here. I mean, they hardly know Donny and I, and our parents only play Bridge together."
"I still don't see why you couldn't stay at your place. Over-protective, much?"
Tara laughed. "Believe me, we tried. Yeah, it's silly. But honestly, it's not bad. They're nice."
"Do they all sit around the dinner table reading Trivial Pursuit cards or anything?"
"No, actually, aside from the night, when we had this nice formal dinner, we really haven't had a lot of sit-down meals. Both her parents work strange hours, I guess, and it's kind of an eat whatever, whenever thing."
"I've been walking up to that sandwich shop on the corner ... with Willow."
"Ah, Willow Rosenberg. Just another four days, Tare. Then you're free."
"Yeah ... uh, Cordy, I wanted to ask you something."
"D'ya think you guys are ... kind of mean to her?"
"To Willow? What do you mean? We don't even talk with her."
"We talk *about* her," Tara stressed.
A pause. "That's 'cause she's a weirdo, Tara."
"Isn't everyone, though? I mean, Harmony's got an unusually large collection of unicorns for a girl her age. Anya reads incest smut. You've got that weird thing with popping--"
"Okay, okay, I gett your point. Sheesh. Point is, Willow's not just weird. She's weird's entire royal family. She's got a framed and hung certificate of weirdness."
"Look, just ... *try* to be nice, will you?"
"Tare, come on, it's only four more days."
A sigh. "All right, but don't you go soft on us, Maclay." Her tone was teasing. That was good.
"One more thing ... you've got to apologize to her about the Jell-o thing."
Willow frowned. "How did you do that?"
"You won again!"
"I'm good at Scrabble?"
"But ... but ... " Willow sputtered.
"One more game?" Tara asked innocently.
They drew tiles, and Willow was the first to play. She started shuffling tiles around on her rack, then gleefully flopped the word DECIDED down on the board. "Bingo!" she squealed.
Tara casually tacked an LY onto the end, hitting the triple word score.
"Well, crap," Willow pouted. She looked at her hand. "I've got too many vowels."
"Trade in?" Tara suggested.
"I don't wanna," Willow moped. "Can I trade you?"
"That's against the rules," Tara chuckled.
"Well, the rules are ... the rules are dumb. Got any esses?"
"What about an R?"
"Mm. I *might* have an R."
"C'mon. I'll trade you a U for it?"
"I'm not sure that's a fair trade. How about two letters?"
"But ... but I need all my other ones ..."
"Oho!" Tara grinned. "So you admit that you've got another bingo with my R, huh? Well, missy, the price just got steeper."
"What about a blank? I'll trade you a blank." Willow held out a blank tile.
"Willow, that's just your U, upside-down."
She batted her eyelashes innocently. "Nuh uh. Is not."
"Tell you what. I'll take your sneaky U and give you my amazing R *if* you give me ... "
Willow listened intently.
"... one of those ice cream sandwiches you've got in the freezer."
"Deal!" Willow up and bolted from the room.
While she was gone, Tara spun Willow's rack around and peered at the letters.
She placed her R in the space vacated by the tile Willow had left with, and giggled.
"Nice word," she said when Willow returned, ice cream sandwich in hand.
Tara shrugged. "You left."
Willow handed her the sandwich, then proudly played her word on the board. "Areolae. Plus three for 'ad.'"
"All right. My turn." Tara played SMOOCH through the O.
"You *did* have an S!"
"How many points?"
Willow began tallying them, but Tara interrupted. "Hang on. New rule. From now on, either player can opt for their word instead of their word's point count."
"You mean, instead of getting the points for smooch, you get a smooch?"
Tara nodded. "Yup!"
Willow set the scorepad aside and leaned across the board to smooch Tara on the lips. "I like this rule." She rexamined her rack of letters in a whole new light. She looked from her rack to the board, then to Tara. "Uh, can I have that U back?"