"Okay, check off 'Criminology.' What's next?" Buffy dumped a heavy textbook into the red plastic carrier she was toting around.
"Classics," Willow replied, matching her schedule up against a list of required books. "Ooh, Mythology of Ancient World Civilizations." She held the paper up so that her friend could see it.
Doing her best to decipher the maze of colored lines and boxes that covered the page, Buffy finally found the entry for the class. "What's orange, again?"
"Huh?" Willow, half-listening, pulled her nose out of the graph theory book. "Oh, orange means you and I both have the class. See?" She pointed at three roughly drawn stick figures at the bottom of the page. A short blue boy with vertical hair was holding hands with a slightly taller red girl, who was holding a laptop. The detail that had gone into the computer put both figures to shame. On the other side of the girl was another, drawn in yellow and holding...something.
Buffy squinted. "Am I walking a dog?" she asked, puzzled.
"What? No," Willow frowned, "that's a field hockey stick."
"Oh, of course. Uh, sorry, I must be looking at it from a weird angle."
Willow gave her friend a doubtful look, before continuing her explanation. "Anyway, we're the primary colors-well, the traditional primary colors, anyway-which just happen to match our hair colors. See? I'm red, you're yellow, and Oz is blue. His hair used to be blue, in any case. But, orange? That's red and yellow."
"And purple is red and blue, so you and Oz?"
"You got it!" Willow nodded emphatically.
Buffy looked at the schedule with new understanding. There was only the one orange class, but she noticed that there were nearly twice as many red boxes as there were yellow or blue ones. "What color would it be if all three of us had the same class?" she pondered aloud.
Willow gave this some thought. "Well, technically, I guess it should be white. But in practice it would probably be, um-" She considered the mixture. "-kind of ugly."
As the girls reached the next aisle, Buffy announced, "Here we are. CLAS: your one-stop shopping haven for all course materials both dry and sleep inducing, yet with surprising staying power." She sighed melodramatically. "Whatever would we do without core requirements?"
"I think it sounds neat," Willow countered. "Just think, we'll get to learn about the artifacts and beliefs of civilizations that existed hundreds, even thousands of years before ours."
Buffy shook her head. "Boring and stuffy; you can count on it. I mean, just check out the professor." She scrolled down the list. "Here. Professor R...Giles? Are you serious? That sounds like...like some kind of butler in an old movie." Buffy feigned a British accent, "Right this way, then. Jolly good. Might I interest you in some tea and crumpets? All right, then. Cheerio."
Willow tried to maintain a look of haughty disapproval, but burst out laughing at the blonde's terrible accent. "He's supposed to be very good," she managed between giggles. "I looked him up on ratemyprofessors.com. He had five of five for overall quality and helpfulness, and four of five for clarity and, uh...well, hotness."
"Hotness? We have a hot professor?" Buffy's interest had been piqued, and Willow suddenly found herself with her friend's undivided attention. "The Internet can tell you these things? Why didn't you tell me this when we were picking my classes?"
"A critical oversight on my part," Willow deadpanned. "Ah! Here we go," she said, pulling two volumes off of the shelf and handing one to her friend.
Buffy gave the book a cursory glance, then stuffed it into her tote. "Great! Can we eat, yet?"
Tara hid in the walk-in freezer. Her feet hurt; while there hadn't been the mad rush of the last several days, a steady stream of business had kept her on her feet all morning, and by noon her lack of sleep was catching up to her. Despite her earlier declaration that she would do her best to be friendly and personable, and possibly to make some friends, her determination had faltered when her first customer had snapped at her for not putting toothpicks through her sandwich, a service clearly shown in the picture on the menu.
With a rush of air, the freezer door opened and Richard stepped inside. At first, he looked right past her, and instead grabbed a package of sausage patties, but then his eyes doubled back. "Hey, kiddo. You okay?"
"Yeah," Tara nodded, "just a-a little overheated. S-sorry, I'll be right out."
Richard nodded. "Two at table five are new," he mentioned, then left quickly, too busy to spare another moment. Tara smoothed her apron with her hands, and followed him out. She weaved around the cooks, lifted a pair of menus from the station and tucked them under her arm, then grabbed two glasses and a water pitcher before heading to the restaurant's floor. When she saw who the new arrivals were, Tara's stomach did an unexpected loop-de-loop. 'It's Willow!' she thought, suddenly fully awake. 'Oh my goodness, she's at my table. Tara, don't you dare stutter! And watch your hands; there must be no fidgeting or tipping over of water glasses.' With each step toward the redhead and her friend, Tara's mind lobbed a new volley of demands to the rest of her body. 'Try to hold eye contact. Lean down when you're talking; it's less awkward when you're at the same eye level. Oh, and remember to smile!' Too quickly, she was at their table.
"Welcome to Plato's," she said, passing them each a menu and filling their glasses. "How are y-you doing, this afternoon?" she asked, internally cringing when she very nearly fumbled mid-sentence.
Buffy nodded a brief, "good," and Willow beamed at the waitress in recognition. "Hey!" she piped. "I'm well, thanks. It's Tara, right?"
"Y-yes," Tara replied, while looking down at her nametag to hide the color that crept into her cheeks. Finding the pin missing, she confusedly scanned the floor between the table and the back counter. "Well, I was. I-I mean, I am, yes, but my, um, my tag has wandered off."
"Oh, well I'm sure it's here somewhere." Willow leaned back in the cushioned booth to check under the table, and when that didn't produce results, she actually ducked underneath entirely, to check whether it could have skittered under the seat. Tara began to protest when she saw the girl easing to the floor, but by the time she found her voice Willow was already on her hands and knees, peering under the bench.
Buffy chose this moment to enter the conversation. "So, was this the Tara from your dream?" Her question was answered with a walloping thump as Willow started and slammed her head into the table's underside, shifting the carefully laid-out silverware all askew. Tara crouched down next to her, offering a hand, which Willow took, crawling out with a pained expression on her face and her other hand holding the top of her head. She helped the dazed girl back into her seat.
"Are you-are you okay?" Tara asked, reluctantly releasing her hand. "You didn't have to do that; really, I'm sure it'll turn up somewhere. Please, don't w-worry about it."
"This place is kind of accident prone, isn't it?" Buffy observed, once she was sure Willow wasn't hurt badly.
"I'm really s-sorry," Tara replied, her attention firmly centered on Willow. "Can I bring you anything? An ice pack, or a compress?"
"No, thanks, I'll live. Hard head and all," Willow quipped, checking her fingers and, finding them free of blood, returning them to the quickly forming lump atop her head. "On second thought," she added, as embarrassment sank in, "do you have a dark hole or anything I could crawl into?"
Tara said the first thing that leapt into her mind. "N-no, but we have r-really good lemonade." Immediately, she chastised herself for blurting out something so stupid. But her words weren't met with the blank stares she feared-well, one of them, maybe. Willow, however, was looking at Tara with wonder, her head tilted slightly, and laughter starting to dance at the edges of her lips.
Buffy, oblivious, chimed in, "I'd take an iced tea, actually." Tara scribbled it down in shorthand on her pad, never taking her eyes off of the redhead.
"Lemonade sounds just about perfect," Willow said, her eyes still sparkling with mirth. Tara smiled and left to retrieve the drinks, giving the girls a minute to pore over their menus. Willow watched her depart, then turned, chuckling, to her friend. She sensed from Buffy's inquiring expression that she had missed the joke. "Lemonade? 'Cause life, with the throwing of lemons?" she mimicked a throwing motion. "And the lemonade?" Buffy just blinked. "It was very funny," Willow muttered, her shoulders slumping in defeat.
In the kitchen, Tara let out a slow, calming breath. 'She knew my name!' she thought, 'I didn't even have my nametag on, but Willow knew my name!'
"Going behind," Faith said, her voice strained from the heavy bucket of tomato sauce she was lugging. Tara flattened against the counter and barely kept the drink she was holding from sloshing over the side of the cup. "Oh, and T, if you guys keep dousing and giving concussions to your customers, they'll probably stop giving you their business." With a grunt, she hefted the sauce up onto the counter and, for the first time that day, considered Tara's appearance. "What's got you all dolled up?"
"Oh, uh, I-I don't know. Is it-I mean, I thought, maybe-"
Faith raised her hand to silence the blonde, snickering. "Easy, T. You don't need a reason to look nice. Just don't normally see you with makeup, is all; it looks good."
"Th-thanks. It felt-you know, like a good change of pace, I guess."
"Heh. Grind of the diner already gettin' to you, huh?"
"Oh, n-no, work's not bad." Tara filled a second glass with iced tea while she spoke. "It's, well, we just moved here, into an apartment that doesn't feel like home, and I haven't really met anybody, yet. You know, m-made any friends?"
"Hell, I can introduce you to tons of people!" Faith stated, swirling a long handled spoon through the tomato sauce. She poured half of it into a casserole pan over a thick layer of sliced eggplant, and wrinkled her nose at the pungent aroma of the concoction. "There's a party over on Frat Row next weekend, in fact. You, me, big ol' party: problem solved!"
"At-at a fraternity?" Tara gawked.
Faith smirked. "Yeah, it turns out these brotherly bands of social servants occasionally kick back and host a ragin' kegger."
"I don't think that would be a good-I'm sure I couldn't-I probably have stuff-"
Tara was cut short by Faith's hand on her shoulder. "Relax, T. What could possibly go wrong?"
At table five, Buffy tapped a text message into her cell phone, while Willow sat captivated by two paintings, which were hanging on the diner's walls. She'd noticed them the previous day, but with the constant chatter of the group lunch, she hadn't really paid them much attention. The sunlight flooding the room lit the woman's portrait beautifully, and the painting was so carefully rendered that Willow was certain its subject must have been real. Willow found her lovely despite the streaks of dirt that marred her face, and the casual half-smile that curled her lips filled Willow with comfortable warmth she couldn't quite explain away.
It was the other painting, however, upon which she fixed her gaze. It was a simple lily, its colors muted, yet the work exuded such waves of sadness that Willow's heart ached in her chest. The dissonance troubled her; her logical brain registered only a washed-out flower, but her body's response was anguish. When she swallowed, it stuck in her throat, and her distress grew gradually until she had to tear her eyes away.
"I'd like to get a painting, for my dorm room," she said, suddenly.
Buffy glanced up from her phone. "A painting of what?"
"I'm not sure. Something comforting; something that reminds me of home."
"Willow, you hate your home. You spent all summer telling me how happy you were that you were getting away from your home."
"Oh, not my house home. I mean more like my-" she paused, and her eyebrows knotted as she realized she wasn't certain what she was trying to say. "-my, uh, my constant. You know, something familiar, which you can look at and feel like you're-like you're home. But it doesn't have to be the actual place. More like a-a symbol, I guess."
"Huh. Where would you get paintings?" Buffy wondered aloud. "Is there a gallery on campus? Or, can you get them on the Internet?"
"Probably both," Willow guessed, "although I'm not sure that any of the ones at school would be for sale; they're probably just student exhibits. I guess I could check the website."
"Why don't you just ask the manager where they got those ones?" Buffy asked, nodding toward the nearer of the two paintings. "And speaking of where to get things, I have absolutely no idea where to even start looking for something for Dawn's birthday."
"I know! Me, too," Willow admitted. "I guess she's gotten too old for any more Care Bears stuff, and at the rate she's growing, I hesitate to get her clothes of any kind-"
"One lemonade," Tara said, approaching the table with two drinks in hand. She placed the first in front of Willow, and slid the other across to Buffy. "And one iced tea. Would you all like to order any appetizers?"
Buffy nodded. "Yeah, could we get one of the chicken quesadillas? And I'd like a-"
"Oh!" Willow blurted out, waving her hands excitedly. "I know!" She swiveled in her seat to face Tara. "Do you know any stores around here that sell, uh, New Age-y stuff? You know, tarot cards, dreamcatchers, incense, comfort stones, those kind of things?"
"I-N-no, sorry," Tara stammered. "I, um, just moved here, actually. A week ago."
"Me, too," Willow shared. "Buffy and I both. Well, not moved, exactly. More like temporarily boarded. We're students. Or will be, as of Monday. I'm so excited!"
"She really is," Buffy concurred, amusement in her voice.
"Oh, I'm Willow, by the way."
"I remember," Tara replied, "f-from the note you left, yesterday." Her mind screamed, 'Tell her it's a pretty name. Tell her!' "It's a pretty, uh, nice name."
Buffy chimed in, "Short for-"
"-don't you dare," Willow interrupted.
"Oh, but sorry, what were you ordering?" Tara asked the blonde, who was holding her hands up defensively at Willow's dangerous glare.
"I'll have a BLT. No pickles, please," Buffy said, handing the waitress her menu.
"Spanikopita for me, please. And, um, a chocolate milkshake."
"Ooh, put me down for one of those, too," Buffy added.
Tara jotted down their order and tucked both menus under her arm. "Okay, wonderful. I'll bring the appetizer and shakes right out in a moment." She gave the two girls a dazzling smile and headed for the kitchen, but she was kicking herself mentally. 'You dummy. She was being nice, talkative. She even asked you for help, and all you could do was stutter and be entirely unhelpful.'
"So was she the one in your dream?" Buffy asked her friend a second time, once the waitress had left.
"Tara? Yeah," Willow thought back to her dream, automatically zooming to her memory of the blonde girl approaching her with a thick, cotton towel to dry off her hair and, well, the rest of her. While recounting the dream to Buffy, she'd neglected to include one significant detail: when the waitress had wrapped her in the cozy, blue towel, Willow hadn't been wearing a stitch of clothing. And, for whatever reason, Willow hadn't been embarrassed by the way Tara had folded the cloth around her, and tenderly dabbed at each drop of water that had spattered her skin.
"That's kind of freaky, though. Oz drowning?"
"I think the tadpoles got him," Willow shuddered.
"Speaking of Oz drowning, is he joining us at that pool thing tonight?"
"Yeah, there aren't fliers all over your dorm? The quad is doing some kind of 'Welcome to UM' kind of thing at the pool, with ice cream, I guess. You're totally going, right? You've got to come with me."
"Of course I'll go," Willow assured her friend. "I don't think Oz will, though; he said something about holding auditions for a new lead singer for Dingoes, tonight."
"Hm. I guess Devon going to school in California does kind of make that a necessity, huh?"
"He's really taking the band thing seriously," Willow said. "He's been talking about it all summer-gigs at the Java Grande and the Perk, practice sessions at this studio they set up in Adam's basement. He says they want to make a real go at it."
"You sound less than thrilled."
"It's just-well, he's hardly said a word about his classes. I have a feeling that academic pursuits are going to be taking a back seat to the band, and-" Willow hesitated.
"-and you wonder what else might?" Buffy guessed.
"I guess so. I mean, I want to be all supportive and happy for him, a-and I am, but, well, in school I saw him every day. He made himself so scarce over the summer; if it wasn't for Terrible Movie Nights, I might not have seen him at all! I-I miss him, Buffy."
"But now you're in school together, again, right? On-campus boyfriend, Will; there's nothing to worry about. Actually, I should pick one of those up. Maybe we should ask about that store..."
Balancing a small tray, Tara eased up to the table and situated two serving napkins next to the girls' place settings, then carefully set a massive chocolate milkshake upon each one. Willow cleared room in the middle of the table for the quesadilla and its accompanying bowls of salsa and sour cream.
"Oh, man, that looks good," Buffy drooled, digging in while their waitress was still at the table.
"I, um, I asked some of the others about the New Age gift shop," Tara informed Willow, who was swirling a wide drinking straw through her shake, "a-and they said there's a little store up Route One toward DC, just before East/West Highway. It's called the Magic Box, I think, or maybe Uncle Bob's Magic Cabinet; there was some disagreement over the name. B-but it should have the kind of things you were looking for."
"Thanks so much," Willow smiled. "That sounds perfect!"
"Yeah, it sounded r-really neat, I thought. There was a place like that back home, called Down to Earth. I could spend hours there," Tara remembered wistfully.
"I thought it would be a good place to look for look for a present for Buffy's little sister. Although, I guess not so much with the little, anymore."
"She's like a bean sprout," Buffy agreed.
"Was she here, yesterday?" Tara asked, recalling the tall youth that had accompanied the girls the previous day-the one whom had laughed gleefully at Buffy's dousing.
"Right! I guess you would have seen her."
"That was your sister? I-I wouldn't have guessed," Tara clamped her hand over her mouth, realizing a moment too late that her statement might be inappropriate. Buffy however, lit up as though the waitress had paid her the deepest compliment.
Willow noticed Tara's hesitation, and reached a hand out to reassure her. "Buffy told me she used to say the same thing," she shared. "When Dawnie was bothering her, she'd tell her that she wasn't really her sister; she said that a group of monks dropped her on the doorstep when she was a baby, and their mom didn't have the heart to turn her away." Willow gave Buffy a look of mock reproval. "Which was awful, by the way."
Tara, however, only heard half of what Willow was saying. The majority of her brainpower was devoted solely to the touch of the redhead's fingers, which were brushing her skin just north of her wrist. When Buffy shrugged good-naturedly at Willow's admonishment, the conversation settled, and the girl still hadn't retracted her hand, Tara felt her cheeks getting hot. She inched back, out of range, and stammered, "I'll, uh, b-be right b-back with your meals."
"She seems kind of flustered," Buffy observed when the waitress disappeared into the kitchen.
Willow didn't deny this. "She's sweet," she added. "That was nice, to follow up on the store like that. It does sound like the perfect place, though, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, Dawn could get lost in those kind of stores. We'd have to keep an eye on her whenever we went into one, or else we'd never see her again."
Willow smirked, sipping her milkshake.
Buffy gave her words careful consideration. "Which, actually, you know-"