Chris: oooooh, *curles up with his blankets*
Mrs. Rosenberg shuffled down the hallway, flipping all the light switches down as she went. She paused at the front door to make sure the deadlock was set, then plodded up the stairs. How old she felt--climbing stairs got a little more difficult every year. Her legs protested the effort. When she reached the top she turned and frowned at the staircase. Maybe tomorrow she'd start that diet. Boy, did that thought sound familiar.
She poked her head into the hallway bathroom to double-check that the nightlight was plugged in. It was silly things like this, she knew, that kept Willow a child in her mind. She was all that Mrs. Rosenberg had, and she wasn't ready to admit that her daughter was growing up so quickly. The door to the guest bedroom was closed. From its far side she heard rhythmic, nasal snoring. She smiled to herself--most people would be kept awake by such raucous sounds, but to Sheila they were a lullaby. Her husband had always snored; she had trouble falling asleep without it.
She moved to Willow's door, which had been left ajar, and tapped lightly, twice. The door swung inward a few inches, and she heard a whispered voice. "Come in."
Tara was sitting up against the side of the bed, with a pillow behind her as a cushion. She watched Sheila enter over a book that she had lowered to her lap. Beside the girl a flashlight was balanced on its end, emiting a beam of light that reached to the ceiling. A foot away, in the center of the floor, Willow lay with her head on the other pillow. The comforter from her bed had been draped across her body. She was fast asleep.
Sheila chuckled at Willow's ability to sleep soundly under any conditions. She smiled at Tara. "I wondered where she'd gone off to," she said. "When she wakes, tell her I said goodnight?"
Tara nodded and examined the girl's sprawled out form. "I will," she said. "Goodnight."
"Sleep tight." Sheila crept from the room, returning the door to its prior position. She turned off the hall light and eased open the door to her own bedroom. When she crawled into bed, she nestled back against her husband. Not for the first time, she thought about how hard it would be for her when Willow headed off to college. Too soon to worry about such things, she knew, but all the same... Sheila closed her eyes and let the gurgling snores of Mr. Rosenberg lull her to sleep.
Downstairs, a grandfather clock chimed twelve low, even notes. That darned clock, Tara thought. She'd mentioned it to Willow, who had admitted that she was so used to it she never noticed it. She had promised Tara that after a couple nights, it would fade into the background. It hadn't, yet. Tara stretched her neck by rolling her head side to side, then shut her book and pushed it closer to her bags.
She inched closer to Willow and sat beside her. In the dim light she could see Willow's eyes twitching under her closed lids. Tara wondered what she might be dreaming. She was asleep on her stomach. One of her arms was bent so that it was tucked under Willow's pillow; the other stuck awkwardly out to the side. Below the shoulders she disappeared under the blanket, but at the other side of it her socked poked out a couple inches.
Tara crawled over to her bags and rummaged through them for a change of clothes. She tiptoed to the door to close it, then sat on the bed and shimmied out of her jeans. She had her tee shirt partway over her head when she heard Willow's voice. "Mm. Tara ..." She quickly tugged the shirt the rest of the way and held it in front of her, but a glance at Willow revealed only her back; Willow's head was still planted in the pillow and facing the other direction.
"... If you wait until October, there'll be twice as many for everybody," Willow advised.
Tara shook her head, giggling to herself. She slipped on a nightgown and crept back to Willow. "Why October, sweetie?" she asked.
Willow muttered something unintelligible, and shifted under the blanket. Now only one sock poked out. "Melloween."
Tara couldn't help herself. She reached out and, using the tip of one finger, brushed the lightest of touches on Willow's cheek. "Halloween?"
Willow slid her free hand to her face and rubbed her nose. Tara swallowed her laughter. "What happens on Halloween?" she pressed.
Willow mumbled, "Kisses."
Tara lifted one corner of the blanket and scooched underneath so that the was right beside Willow. She tickled the wisps of hair at top of the girl's neck. Again, Willow's hand brushed her nose. "You mean like Hershey's Kisses?" Tara brushed Willow's hair away from her neck and pressed her lips to the spot her fingers had danced upon. "These kisses?"
Willow purred contently and rolled the rest of the way onto her side, and Tara tucked herself into the space to spoon Willow from behind. "Sweetie?"
"Mm," Willow grumbled. Tara slid her arm over the girl so that her hand rested just to the side of her tummy, and Willow's moved to cover it.
"Sweetie?" Tara tried again.
"Mm. Wha--?" Willow blinked and smacked her lips twice, then twisted her neck to look at Tara.
Aww, Tara thought, she looks so tired ... "You think maybe you can help me get you into bed?" Tara watched the look of confusion on Willow's face morph slowly into dawning comprehension. Yes, they were on the floor. Yes, it was uncomfortable.
"Moof. Kay," Willow mumbled. She rolled fully onto her stomach, dragging the blanket halfway off of Tara in the process, and managed to pull her knees under herself. She pushed herself up and literally crawled to the bed, wearing the blanket like a cloak. She bumped the flashlight over when she clambered up onto the bed, and it rolled in an arc, making shadows around the room lengthen and fall back in on themselves. With the light no longer reflecting from the ceiling, Willow disappeared into a dark lump of blankets.
Tara retrieved the pillows and the light, which she turned off, then felt her way toward the bed. She sat, first making sure she wasn't squishing any part of Willow, and patted her way up Willow's body until she found her head. This she lifted and tucked a pillow underneath. "You are entirely too adorable," she whispered to the darkness.
She sat beside Willow for ten minutes, letting her hands stroke her hair, her shoulders, and part of the blanket pile that felt like it was probably Willow's side. "You asleep?" she guessed. She got no response but deep, even breaths. Feeling daring, she traced further down the silhouette until she came to the curve of Willow's bottom. She cupped her hand and patted it affectionately. Still Willow slept.
Tara chuckled to herself. "Goodnight, Willow," she said. Luckily her eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough for Tara to pick her way to the door.
She way halfway out when she heard Willow mutter, "'Night, Tara."
Megan: *takes a break to get a cup of water*
Tara Maclay jumped at the loud voice behind her, and nearly smacked her head on the open locker door. She spun around. "Jesus, Cordy. Don't sneak up like that!"
"Guess whose only got *three* more days in the --" she noted Tara's arched eyebrow and finished lamely "-- uh, Rosenberg's house?"
"Yeah," Tara nodded. She finished stuffing her no longer needed texts into the locker and swung it shut. "I still don't see why you bother keeping a tally."
"*I* still don't see why we have to play nice," Cordelia grumbled. "Anyway, I've got another one. Can you guess who's going to the senior prom?"
Gee, what a stumper, Tara thought. "The seniors?" she guessed sarcastically.
Cordelia failed to notice it. "Annnnd yours truly." She fell into stride beside Tara as they walked to class. "Jeremy Dougan asked me this morning!"
"Jeremy Dougan? Isn't he dating what's-her-face?"
"Well, that's a long ... kind of weird story. Anyway, doesn't matter. Point is, prom. I need to get a second dress!"
"You can't just ... wear the same one?"
Cordelia actually stopped walking, she was so taken aback by the suggestion. "I ... I don't even know why I bother talking to you about these sorts of things." She shook her head. "So, anyway, I was kind of hoping ..."
" ... Yes?" Tara asked after a long pause.
"That you'd tell me who it is!"
Oh, jeez, not this again. The girls had been relentlessly pestering her about who she was interested in since they'd caught her staring. All but Anya, that is, who seemed convinced that her theory--Xander Harris--was right on the mark.
"Willow Rosenberg," Tara said.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Har har. Come on."
Tara merely shrugged and walked into her class, leaving Cordelia sputtering in the hallway.
"Fine!" she called after her. "Keep your little secret. I'll find out one way or another."
"Maybe she's just playing with us," Harmony said. "Maybe she just zoned out, and played along when we thought she was staring."
"No way," Cordelia insisted. "Come on, keep looking." They had a copy of last year's yearbook open on the table, and they were systematically going through each picture.
"Hey. What are you two doing?" Anya asked as she approached the lunch room table.
"Tara won't fess up," Cordelia said. "So we've resorted to process of elimination."
"Ah, gotcha. Well, it's not Xander. At least, if it is, *he* doesn't know anything about it."
Harmony looked up from the book and frowned. "How do you know?"
Anya pulled an apple out of a paper bag and took a large bite. "I asked him."
Clearly, the idea hadn't occured to Harmony. "Oh."
"I'm thinking about asking him to the prom," Anya said casually.
Cordelia coughed fitfully as some of her Diet Coke went down her windpipe. "What?!"
"Xander. I'm might ask Xander to the prom," Anya repeated.
"Has the entire world gone crazy? What the heck is going on?" Cordelia asked. "First I can't say anything about Rosenberg, now ... ew ..." She looked at Harmony. "Please tell me you're not secretly dating Jon Levinson."
Harmony's face screwed up at the mere mention of his name. "That's horrible," she said.
"Oh! There he is," Anya said, oblivious to Cordelia's outburst. She waved at Xander from across the room. He saw her, checked both sides and behind him, then looked back at her. "Me?" his hand gesture asked. "Be right back," said Anya. She slid back her chair and sashayed across the lunch room toward the young man.
Cordelia sighed and let her forehead fall to the table with a resounding thud. "Wake me when the nightmare's over," she said to Harmony.
Tara spied Willow coming out of the library a ways up the hall. The girl turned and was headed her way. They made brief eye contact, and Tara smiled, but Willow ducked her head and started to breeze right past her. "Hey ..." Tara began, swiveling to Willow's back. "Hey, wait."
Willow stilled and turned. She looked at Tara apologetically. "Sorry, I ... I don't know if ..."
Tara sneaked a peek at the clock further down the hallway. "Which class do you have now?" she asked.
Tara nodded toward the English wing. "Let's go; I've got time."
"Okay." Willow nodded, but didn't move. "You sure?"
"C'mon." Tara started walking, and Willow hustled to catch up. "Hey, I was thinking--you want to make dinner, tonight?"
"You mean, like, you and me? Cooking for ... ?"
"For your folks, yeah. And Donny," she added as an afterthought. "I usually cook one day a week at home. It's kind of fun."
"Yeah," Willow nodded. "Yeah, we could do that. I mean, I'm pretty sure mom won't mind." She smiled. "But I'll be home later, 'cause of chess club."
"Well, I sort of thought I might go with you," Tara offered. "Donny can pick us up, and we could swing by the grocery store afterward."
Willow was getting into the idea. "Okay! Uh, so ... do we have like recipes, or ..."
Tara shrugged. "Whatever looks good at the store," she said. Willow looked concerned, and Tara laughed. "The recipes are up here," she said, pointing to her head. "It'll be okay."
"All right ... if you say so." She didn't sound entirely convinced. Leave it to Willow to want step-by-step written instructions.
They stopped outside of the door to Willow's class. "So I'll see you two thirty?"
"Yup!" Willow nodded enthusiastically. "See you!" She disappeared into the classroom.
The bell rang loudly. "Crap," Tara said. She took off running down the hall.
"I thought they were horses."
"Well, they are. Knights *on* horses."
"And the horses can jump over other pieces?"
"Right. They can jump."
Tara nodded and stared at the board. The rules were beginning to make sense. "Can they jump over other horses?" she asked.
"Okay. Got it," Tara said.
Willow tapped a piece on the corner of the board. "And this last one's the rook, or the castle. It moves and captures in in straight lines. It can go as far as it can see."
Tara smiled. "I think I got them all."
"Great!" Willow moved a couple of pieces off the board. "Now, if there aren't any pieces between the King and a Rook, and neither of them has moved, *and* none of the squares in between are being threatened by an opposing piece ..."
While Willow talked, Tara's expression went from understanding to complete confusion. Luckily, Xander picked that moment to approach. "Whoa, whoa," he said. "Let's not jump into the deep end of the chess pool so soon, Will."
Willow frowned. "But Xander, castling is one of the most important --"
Tara looked at Xander pleadingly, and he put a hand on Willow's shoulder. "I know, I know, but how about we take it easy on the rookies, hm? Don't want to scare off new blood."
Willow reluctantly agreed, and they set the pieces back to their starting positions. "All right. Want to try a practice game?" she asked.
"Okay," Tara said uncertainly. "Who goes ... oh, right. White. That's me."
They moved a few pieces, and Willow discussed strategy, advantage and board position. She mentioned a few Russian-sounding names that went right over Tara's head. Eventually, Willow took one of Tara's pieces. Tara looked forlornly at the pawn, which now sat off to the side of the board. She studied the remaining pieces on the board, then moved one of her pawns forward a square.
"You can take it back," Willow said.
"Take what back?"
Willow pointed at her own piece. "I took your pawn here, but you have the square covered by this knight." She pointed at that, too. "See? You can take my pawn right back."
Tara nodded. "I wanted to move this one."
"But it's a totally free piece. If you don't take it, I'll use it to capture again on my turn."
"That's okay," Tara said. "I can move the next one out of the way, right?"
Willow blinked. "I ... I think you're not grasping the whole idea, here. You need to take pieces or make sacrifices to gain better positioning on the board."
"But ... they're *your* pieces."
Willow opened her mouth to reply, then hesitated, then closed it again. "How 'bout we play something else?"
"All right, everyone. Let's wrap it up," said Mr. Weston, the teacher who ran the club. "Good job today, Max. Keep working on that end game."
"Just ... one ... more," Tara said. She tugged ever-so-slightly on one of the wooden pegs. Unfortunately, her precision faltered and the entire Jenga tower tumbled to the tabletop. "Crap."
Willow began gathering up the blocks and returning them to their box while Tara stood by the window where her cell phone had better reception. One quick phone call to her brother, then they walked together out of the room and toward the side entrance.
"Mom was really excited about not having to make dinner," Willow mentioned. They crossed a short span of grass before reaching the student parking lot, where they took a seat on a curb.
"Oh, I meant to ask. Do you guys ... is there anything we need to make sure we don't make? Like ..."
Willow chuckled. "No, we'll eat whatever. Everybody's pretty relaxed about the whole Jewish thing."
"Cool." There was a long silence. "You seemed kind of surprised when I said hi, earlier."
Willow grimaced. "Yeah. I ... I guess I wasn't really sure how ... y'know, how stuff was going to be, at school."
"Well, I kind of told Cordy to stop being such a jerk, but I don't know if it sank in."
Willow looked up. "Really? What'd she say?"
"Oh, nothing surprising. She's kind of been getting on my nerves, the last few days."
"I don't want things to get weird between you and your friends."
Tara shook her head. "No, I mean, it's not like *bad* or anything. I just get tired of ... of how being popular seems to go hand in hand with trampling other people. Doesn't really make sense. Why would people like somebody who's awful to others?" She noticed Willow smiling broadly, and asked, "What?"
She shrugged. "I'm really glad you got stuck with us. No, that sounds stupid. Of *course* I'm glad about that. I just mean ... I'm glad I get to find out who you actually *are*. 'Cause before ... you were just one of Cordelia's friends, you know?"
"I know what you mean," Tara said. "It's a lot different, spending time with somebody instead of just seeing them every once in a while at school. For example: I never would have expected you to be such a good kisser." She smirked.
Willow stuck out her tongue. "I never would have expected you to be such a brilliant Scrabble player."
"*I* never would have expected you to say such naughty things in your sleep," Tara replied casually.
Willow's eyes widened. "You're teasing, right?"
She laughed. "Yeah, don't worry. You do talk in your sleep though. Random stuff."
"I don't remember it all. Something about October, then Halloween, but I think you were awake for some of it."
"Huh. Weird. I don't remember any of my dreams."
"You said my name," Tara recalled. "Before you started in on Halloween."
"Really?" Willow frowned. "I wish I could remember. Now I feel like I've been robbed of Tara dreams."
"Pssh, who needs dreams? I'm right here."
"Yeah, but maybe in my dreams I was kicking your butt at Scrabble." Willow smiled a Cheshire Cat smile.
Tara bumped Willow's hip with her own. "You goof."
Megan: Goodnight, moon.