"It's...cozy," Buffy declared, flopping down on the lower of two stacked bunk beds and wiping the back of her hand across her damp forehead. The room was cramped; most of the available floor space was currently buried under meticulously labeled cardboard boxes and plastic totes. With the clutter making the double look even less spacious than it had previously, the blonde questioned her friend, "They do expect two of you to live here, right?"
Willow stepped through the doorway, her balance teetering dangerously as she struggled to see around a box full of linens. Joyce Summers, just a step behind, reached out a hand to her shoulder, steadying her. With an appreciative nod to the woman, Willow dumped the box atop another labeled 'Clothes, Cold Weather,' before addressing Buffy.
"Well, it's certainly a double, being with the two beds and all, but it does seem like the rooms may have shrunk since orientation, doesn't it?" She frowned at the tight quarters, knowing that the others were lugging up furniture while they talked, and that they'd have to navigate through a maze of boxes. "Maybe we should put some of these on the bed for now, until we get the larger items in their proper places?"
Joyce meanwhile was peering out through the yellowed window, squinting in mid-afternoon sun. Their group of six had arrived in two cars and one moving van very early that morning, been joined by Oz, and had already unloaded all of Buffy's things into her dormitory on South Campus. Willow's building, Ellicott Hall, bounded one side of a quad on a hill at the northern edge of the school. What should have been a glorious panoramic view of the campus, however, was being obscured by a massive stadium looming across the street. "I wonder if it gets very loud?" Joyce asked. "During the games, I mean. The stadium's awfully close. What's your mascot, anyway?"
Buffy scoffed. "We're turtles."
"Terrapins, actually," Willow clarified. "Diamondback terrapins. It's the state reptile." She lifted a tote from the ground to the bed as she recited some things she'd looked up online. "They used to be an endangered species here, because of hunting-"
"Because they are tasty," Buffy added, helpfully. She'd gleaned that piece of information from one of the college's many guided tours for prospective students.
"Right, because turtle soup was kind of a delicacy," the redhead shuddered at the thought. "Anyway, the mascot used to be the Old Liners, but they changed it because, hello? Student body largely under the age of fifty." Willow's face paled as she suddenly remembered to whom she spoke, and her mind automatically churned out the calculation of Joyce's age. When 'x' came out less than fifty, she released an inaudible breath and allowed her heart to resume its normal pattern.
"Who's under the age of fifty?" wheezed a sweaty Ira Rosenberg as he stumbled into the room, struggling with the weight of a box full of Willow's books. Buffy leapt to his aid, and the two of them eased the heavy load to the ground, tucking it into a corner where it wouldn't be an obstacle.
"I believe our daughters were making veiled remarks that as we age, we become old farts stuck in our conservative ways," Joyce teased.
"Nyah!" Buffy protested. "Daughters, plural? I had no part in this conversation!" She pointed a finger accusingly at her friend. "She's the one you want."
Willow stared blankly at the adults-Joyce sporting impish grin and Ira looking utterly confused, as though he'd walked into a theater in the middle of a picture-then fell over her own words as she verbally backpedaled. Luckily, the boys chose just that moment to turn the corner of the doorway. Xander backed up to the threshold, peering over his shoulder awkwardly and testing each step backward with the heel of one foot, while Oz swung the far end of the bookshelf around in the hallway to line it up with the door.
"Where's it going, Willster?" the dark haired young man asked, his voice strained under the weight he carried, "and choose fast, or else it's going to be permanently embedded in the floor right here in the doorway."
"Oh, um," Willow fumbled with a paper that she drew from her pocket, rotating it so that it lined up with the room's layout. "The bookshelf goes on the wall there, right next to the closet. There should be several inches to spare."
Xander merely grunted his acknowledgement, hunching his shoulders as he hefted the piece of furniture into the cleared space. Noting the snug lodging, he swung open the closet door, expecting the other half of the room to lay beyond. Finding only a shallow closet, he whistled in mock appreciation. "Wowsers, Will. They really spared no expense with this place." He closed the door with a gentle click. "I wonder what the suites look like?"
With Oz free of his burden, Willow sidled into his arms. The musician planted a gentle kiss in her hair just above her ear. "Have you met your roommate, yet?"
Willow shook her head. "No, we spoke on the phone yesterday, and she said she was going to some function at one of the sororities-"
"Tri Delta," Buffy filled in.
"-and she said she'd be moving in tomorrow." Oz nodded as Willow finished her explanation, and for a moment everyone stood still, taking in the room and gathering their breath for another trip down to the moving van.
"Say, where's Dawnie?" Willow asked suddenly, breaking the comfortable silence that had settled over the group. Buffy's younger sister wouldn't be denied coming with them, that morning, and she'd been bubbling over all day about how cool she thought it was that the older girls were going to college and getting to live outside the restrictions of parental supervision.
"She's down with the van," Xander explained. "We didn't want to leave it open and unguarded with the number of people moving in down there. She should come up with the next run; she's practically hopping to see where you'll be living."
"All right, let's head down," Joyce directed. "We've got maybe two more trips, then Ira has kindly offered to return the van while I take you all out for lunch." At the mere mention of food, the group remembered just how hungry they were. Joyce noticed an increased jump in their steps as the six of them filed out through the narrow doorway.
"No, no, I like them," Richard stated, cocking his head to one side to see the paintings from a different angle. He leaned forward to adjust one of the frames a smidgen to the left, then stepped back to judge whether it was level. Satisfied, he smiled at Tara. "They're very good, but why did you want to bring them here? Wouldn't you rather them be at your apartment?"
Tara shook her head. "I'll spend more time with them, here; I'm not in the apartment all that often. And-and besides, this way I can share them with more people. We don't, um, get many visitors at our place." She hung her head, embarrassed. The Maclays had never had much in the way of company; even back at their home in Snow Hill they rarely had anyone over to the house. While her mother, Helen, had been alive, sometimes the woman would invite friends over to play Pinochle, but as far as Tara knew her father had no friends, just business associates, and the extent of his social life after Helen's death was the occasional trip to a bar after work.
"Well, I think they're lovely," Richard's voice pulled the girl back to the present. "And you're welcome to hang more if the creative bug ever bites you. We've got plenty of wall."
The diner, while small, did have lots of empty space on its whitewashed walls, and she admitted that her paintings-the only two she'd brought from the Shore-added a pleasant personal touch to the otherwise Spartan décor of the restaurant. Her heart sank as the remembered the real reason she'd asked Richard about hanging the paintings at work: she knew her father would not let her put them up at the apartment. At their house, she'd kept them on the walls in her room, a sanctuary that Tara's father rarely entered. But now, her room was a shared space, and her father-while not stating so explicitly-had hinted that her artwork might find a better home elsewhere. His excuse was that the school was generous to offer the workers and their families housing close to the project site, and that the least they could do was leave the walls undamaged, but Tara knew his true motives: he couldn't bear to look upon the paintings.
One of the pieces, a rich oil on canvas, bore the spitting image of Helen Maclay as a pre-teenaged Tara would have remembered her. She'd painted it only three years ago, but her memory of the graceful lines of her mother's face hadn't faded through the passage of time. The woman in the portrait's eyes danced with barely concealed mirth, and the corner of her mouth quirked up in a curious half-smile that Tara had captured perfectly. She had always believed her mother was a beautiful woman, and wanted to remember how she had been before she got sick: joyous and vibrant, while tending the small garden in the back yard of their home in Snow Hill, which she had loved so dearly. Now that memory was living on the canvas, catching the light from one of the diner's large windows.
In stark contrast, the second work, hanging in a spot of shade on a side wall, was a still life, painted in dark watercolors. The subject was a single pink daylily blossom, which took up the majority of the framed space. The flower rested on a jarring break between neatly trimmed grass and what could have been white marble, although the background was given less detail than the lily itself. Its white-tipped petals furled symmetrically away from the flower, their hues shifting through pinks and deeper purples as they neared the center. Six pale green stamens protruded from the throat of the lily, each capped with a rusty, pollen-heavy anther. The entire image was washed in shadow, and Richard wondered whether the painting had been created on a cloudy day.
Tara turned to her boss, and smiled as his offer. "Thank you so much," she began, "I-maybe I will, w-with the college so close." Richard didn't seem to make the logical jump with her, so she clarified, "Because of the gallery. Have you seen it? They hang students' artwork all over the building. It's-it's really something."
The man nodded in understanding. "Ah. No, I haven't seen it, but maybe I will, now." Richard and Tara both glanced at the door when the jingle of the bell, hanging overhead, heralded the arrival of a group of six: five fatigued college-aged people, and one older, blonde woman. At a second glimpse, Tara adjusted her evaluation; one of the girls was younger than the rest, but her height made her appear older. The group waited just inside the entryway, huddled close together to avoid blocking the door. Tara wondered which of them were students, and which were family members helping them move in. The older woman bore a striking resemblance to the blonde girl, so Tara pegged the girl as a student, but she wasn't sure about the others. Two of them were redheads, and although they were standing together, Tara noted that their postures hinted at a relationship that was outside the normal familial bond. One was a short boy with spiky hair and a plaid overshirt wrapped around his midsection and knotted in the front. He leaned almost protectively into one of the girls as a couple of diner patrons making their exit squeezed past the group.
When Tara flicked her eyes to the other side of the obvious couple, her breathing hitched in her throat. The girl was undeniably adorable, dressed in mix-matched green denim and pink long-sleeved top, despite the heat. She capped the look off with a pair of worn sneakers, from which protruded the most garish checkered socks Tara had ever had the good fortune to see. Her long, ruddy hair was tucked behind the cutest ears, and cascaded well down her back, but it was the girl's eyes that captured her. She had the largest, most expressive green eyes Tara had encountered, and she found herself lost in them. She knew, within a single heartbeat, that the girl was special.
It wasn't until Andrew approached the group and asked them to follow him to a table that Tara realized she'd been standing in the center of the room, staring at the group for two full minutes while they had been waiting patiently for service. Her cheeks glowing with embarrassment, and more than a little disappointed that she'd missed the chance to guide the girl and her companions to a table in her own section, she spun and nearly ran directly into Faith, who had walked up behind her.
Faith shrugged off Tara's stuttered apology, instead nodding toward the crowded booth and commenting, "that's quite a tip you missed." An amused grin spread across her face as the color of Tara's blush deepened; in the short time they'd worked together, Faith had known the blonde to space out on occasion, and she never tired of the reaction she got when she teased her about it.
Shifting subjects after getting her fill of Tara's embarrassment, Faith regarded the new additions to the diner's walls. "Those yours?" she asked, lifting her chin in the general direction of the paintings.
"Yes; I brought them f-from home. Richard said that it was okay to hang them here." Tara watched uneasily as Faith peered at the works, hoping the girl didn't find them off-putting. She wanted the paintings to have a welcome home, and she would of course remove them if Faith didn't like them.
"They're nice," Faith determined after a minute. "Very...artsy." She nodded at her helpful descriptive review, certain that Tara would take it as the highest praise. "Who's the picture of?"
"M-my mother," Tara stammered, "Helen Maclay."
Recognizing that the conversation was covering uncomfortable ground for her coworker, Faith quickly shifted tracks. "Did you take classes? Or are you, now? At the University?"
Tara shook her head. "No, it's always just been a-a hobby, I guess. I liked being able to-to save things I thought about on the canvas, where they have some kind of permanence." She glanced over at Faith, unsure of how the girl would take what she felt was an important admission, but found that her attention had been pulled elsewhere. Following her gaze, both girls watched in horror as Andrew, in a flustered state while trying to jot down orders for the table and pour water at the same time, tipped over one of the glasses. Seemingly in slow motion, the glass toppled, its contents issuing out over waiter's hands and the tabletop, and cascading over the edge in a miniature waterfall. In a flurry of shoving and flailing limbs, the three customers on that side of the table bolted from the booth. The taller girl appeared to be relatively unscathed, but both the blonde girl and the larger of the two boys sported dark, wet stains on their laps. Tara was surprised when the first thing through her mind after the accident was that she was glad the redhead had been unaffected. Pushing the thought aside, she grabbed two towels and a handful of napkins and rushed to Andrew's aid.
As she neared, the waiter slipped on the wet floor and tumbled into her. Tara braced herself against his weight, bumping into the next table and shaking its silverware. Several tables full of customers looked up simultaneously at the spectacle, but when nothing further fell over, they returned to their meals and conversations. Tara regained her balance and helped Andrew right himself. While the two damp customers wore looks of outright indignation, the younger girl snorted out laughter at them both. When Andrew had slipped, the redhead had risen to her feet. Now, she graced the two diner employees with an understanding smile, offering a napkin to Andrew so he could dry his hands. "Are you alright?" she asked them both.
"I'm so sorry!" Andrew squeaked, taking a towel from Tara and kneeling to mop up the floor. Tara nodded and began soaking up the water from the table. "We-we're fine, thanks. Would you like to move to another booth?" She was touched that, in the face of her two angry friends, the girl had shown concern first for their waiters.
"No, no, we'll be fine here," the older woman spoke for the first time. "It's just water after all. And Dawn, knock that off; leave your sister and Xander alone."
Despite the episode with their waiter, the group had an otherwise pleasant lunch. They filled their empty stomachs with quesadillas and burgers, tuna melts and-in Joyce's case-a healthy Dijon chicken salad wrap, and when they were done they eased back into their seats, stuffed to gills. Tara continued to keep an eye on the table while she handled her own section, until it became to busy to spare even the occasional glance in the redhead's direction.
When the lunch rush died down, she noticed Andrew was clearing the dishes they'd left off of the table; they had already departed. The boy reached down and snatched up a scrap of paper, then smiled as he stared at its contents. When he next passed Tara, he slipped the note into her hands.
As she read the paper, a lopsided grin spread across her face that matched the one in the portrait perfectly. Underneath a carefully rendered smiley face, a message had been printed in looping penmanship: "Proper poise prevents paludal patrons. Thanks for the tasty meal! ~ Willow."
Tara mouthed the name softly. "Willow..." She had no doubt who had left the note.