Tara blinked up at the darkening sky. She shifted uncomfortably when she realized she was lying on her back, and heard the squeak of rubber beneath her. She was sprawled out on a pool chair, wearing a one-piece swimsuit with a pair of cotton shorts tied loosely above her hips. She didn't remember falling asleep, just enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face, what felt like seconds ago. Sitting, Tara rubbed at her aching neck, and winced when the skin of her flexed elbow flared with pain. How long had she slept? Tara guessed from the sun's location that it was nearly six, which meant she'd conked out for a solid two hours. Her usually cream colored arms and legs were a bright pink, and the tops of her ears itched. She glanced pensively at the unused tube of sunscreen that she'd carried down with her, then forgotten. Tara wriggled her nose, and touched a tentative finger to its tip, finding it tender as well.
"Well, great," she muttered to herself. "That's what you get for sitting inside reading and painting all summer: pasty, easily burnable whiteness." Tara stood unsteadily and made her way to the pool, dipping in a toe to test its temperature. She stripped off her shorts and eased into the cool water, gasping when it reached her knees, and again when it soaked into her suit. When she was waist deep, she took a full breath and plunged under, pushing off the bottom step and gliding just below the surface toward the deeper end. The noisy chatter of the crickets and cicadas was immediately drowned out by water rushing past her ears, and for a moment, Tara simply enjoyed the sensations of being underwater. She stopped kicking and floated, her body gently buoyed to the surface by the water, then rolled and began a lazy back crawl, traversing the pool while gazing at the dim, starless heavens.
Tara loved swimming. Hannah, her only friend in high school, had been on the school's two-member swim team, and so she found herself often sitting by the local pool where she practiced. At first, Tara would park herself in a deck chair and read, making conversation whenever Hannah completed a lap at her end of the pool, but eventually her friend had lured her into the water, and Tara had been part fish ever since. She enjoyed the feelings of weightlessness when she was in the pool; it centered her, soothed her, and gave her peace of mind. Planing through the water, she could block out all of her daily stressors, and focus only the things that brought her comfort: memories of her mother, Donny as a baby, her painting, the garden, and the old sycamore tree that in the yard behind the hose in Laurel, its lowest branches dipping just enough to be used as a handhold. She remembered sitting in the tree, with her back pressed against the rough bark of its trunk and a book closed in her lap, watching her father play with Donny in the yard. Back when he was happy-back when her mother was alive.
When she reached the far end of pool for the sixth time, Tara caught movement at the edge of her vision. A bearded man in khaki shorts, sandals, and a tee shirt that barely contained his bulging gut was swinging the gate open and entering the pool area. "Miss, pool closes in five minutes," he stated, when he saw he had her attention. Tara nodded and pushed off of the wall, stroking through the water toward the side of the pool where her towel and clothing lay. She clung to the edge while watching the man circle the pool, gathering leftover towels and debris, and when she was certain his attention was not on her, Tara swung herself up out of the water. She banged her shin on the corner, wincing at both the impact and the tender skin, then quickly hobbled over to the chair and wrapped herself in an oversized beach towel.
A mile away, in another pool, Buffy Summers surfaced gracefully, standing in the shallow water and sweeping her damp hair behind her shoulders. The collective intake of breath from the nearby boys was audible, and it wasn't lost on Buffy. She was quite aware of the effect she had on boys; they'd been turning their heads and leaving a trail of drool since sixth grade. By high school, she'd had a queue of suitors, and she diplomatically shot each and every one down. Sure, she loved the attention, but Buffy didn't want to get too attached to anyone; she didn't have a lot of free time during the field hockey season, and wanted to be able to spend it on her own terms, without worrying about another person. And besides, none of the boys that were wooing her made her feel much of anything in return. Then, she met Liam.
Liam Whelan was an enigma. Three years her senior, the brooding upperclassman took an instant interest in Buffy, and a spark was finally lit under the girl. They'd dated for three years-a passionate, urgent union, which Buffy had hidden from her mother-before the real demon in Liam became apparent. Always moody, the senior had grown even more distant, and when Buffy tried to close the gap, Liam had lashed out; sharp, hurtful things were said, which even today still rung in Buffy's ears. In the cold spell following a particularly vicious argument, they'd broken up, and Liam, having graduated two years earlier, simply vanished from the girl's life altogether.
The boys' reactions to her friend did not go unnoticed by Willow, either. Sitting at the edge of the pool, with a pair of olive capris bunched at her knees and bare feet dangling in the water, she looked up from her book just in time to catch the swiveling heads and whisperings that passed among the group of students bobbing behind Buffy. Despite her earlier comments about picking up a boyfriend, Willow knew all too well how the scene would play out: one of the young men, spurred on by his companions and cocksure from his high school conquests, would paddle over to the blonde and say something witty, charming, or self-effacing. Then, Buffy, apparently dead set in her decision to stay single forever, and tired of boys who thought a gentle let down was merely the first step in the long dance of courtship, would turn him aside with a blunt, firm, "Don't bother; I'm not interested."
Willow had witnessed first-hand the devastation Liam's actions had wreaked upon Buffy. As her closest friend, it had fallen upon Willow to console her, to cheer her up, to keep her social life afloat, instead of holing up in her room. Many tears had been shed during their senior year, but while Willow hoped that she never again had to help her friend through such heartbreak, she felt that Buffy's avoidance of men altogether was folly. How would she ever be happy if she systematically shot down all attempts at love before they could even get off the ground?
She felt bad for the boys, as well; they didn't know that they were lining themselves up to crash and burn. Willow had borne her fair share of rejection; she knew what it felt like to learn that the object of your affection was in no uncertain terms not interested. Okay, so maybe she'd never exactly acted upon her feelings, or made them known to her crushes by any means, but with the way they had looked right past her, Willow had held few doubts about what the results of such a display would have been. And besides, she'd known Xander Harris, the self-proclaimed Rejection Magnet, long enough to have experienced the effects of unrequited attraction second-hand. Willow didn't want to see anybody's hopes shattered this evening, and so, recognizing that only awkwardness lay ahead, she decided to defuse the situation before it became ugly.
"Hey, Buffy!" she hollered.
When the blonde turned toward Willow's voice, a small tidal wave of water, delivered by a sure-footed kick, splashed her directly in the face. After a brief fit of coughing and sputtering, Buffy, failing to recognize her friend's offering as the act of goodwill that it was, leveled a dangerous glare at Willow.
"You are so gonna' get it..."
With two powerful strokes, Buffy reached the edge of the pool and hoisted herself out of the water. Willow scrambled back with a yelp, dropping her book and retreating to the opposite side of a pool chair. A crowd of onlookers gathered as the girls circled the chair, and when Buffy finally leapt straight over the obstacle, Willow narrowly evaded her lunge and darted for the far side of the pool. While weaving around the plastic tables, the redhead first tried to defend her actions, then resorted to pleading for her friend to call a truce. Eventually, a group of boys-some of whom Willow recognized as belonging to the group whose egos she had generously preserved-formed a wall, effectively barring her escape route and allowing Buffy to grab her about the waist from behind. With grim determination, the blonde carried a struggling, squealing Willow to the pool's edge, then unceremoniously dumped her, fully clothed, into the water.
"Hey," Tara greeted her brother as she swung the apartment door closed behind her. "Anything good on?"
Donny was sprawled out on the couch, watching a documentary on television. As Tara stepped closer, she saw on the screen what looked like a weasel standing on its hind legs, while several others rooted around nearby. When Donny didn't reply, she navigated around the sofa and stood just within his field of vision. Her head cocked inquisitively to one side as she took in a minute of the program. Two of the furry animals began tussling while the one remained standing erect. "Is that weasel the...referee?" she finally asked.
"They're meerkats," her brother replied, glancing at Tara for a moment, then returning his attention to the show. "That one's acting as a lookout for predators while the others look for food."
"Huh." Tara sat down on the edge of the couch. "What do they eat?"
"I don't know; bugs and stuff, I guess?" Donny looked at his sister once more, then did a double take. "Whoa, what happened to you?"
"Oh," Tara examined her singed skin, pushing the pad of her thumb into the red patch just above her knee. "I sort of fell asleep by the pool this afternoon; I guess I didn't have much of a base. But the water's really nice." When she pulled her hand away, a perfect white oval remained, but it quickly succumbed to the redness.
"Yeowch," Donny said, making a face. His gaze drifting back to the television, where a meerkat was tangling with a nasty-looking snake, while frenetic tribal drumming was added to make the scene seem all the more gripping. The siblings watched the program quietly for several heartbeats, before Tara again broke the silence.
"Are you hungry, at all? I stopped at the store, so there's all sorts of things in the kitchen."
"Nah, not really. I kind of snacked when I got home." When Donny realized his sister wasn't going anywhere without a conversation, he stretched an arm out for the remote, and muted the program. "How was work?"
"It was good." Tara thought back to her morning at the diner. The gorgeous redhead-'Now she's "gorgeous"?' she thought. 'What happened to just "adorable"?'-and her friend had talked with her. Willow had understood Tara's odd sense of humor. She had said Tara's store recommendation was "perfect." She had maybe feasibly possibly conceivably had a dream about Tara. "It was really good!" she amended.
She had reached out and touched Tara's arm. Surely it was just her imagination, or maybe the sunburn, but Tara thought she could still feel her skin tingling where the Willow's fingers had brushed her wrist. It had been a gesture of comfort; the girl had realized Tara thought she'd put her foot in her mouth, and was merely seeking to reassure her that all was well. But that touch...
And the day's surprises hadn't ended there. "Oh! I, um, I sort of got invited to a party."
For the first time that evening, Donny's interest was piqued. "What? That's awesome! Who invited you to a party?"
"My coworker, Faith."
"When is it?"
From the thrilled look on Donny's face, anyone would have thought it was he who had been invited to the party. When he thought through the logistics of it, however, his excitement waned. "Uh, Tara, I don't think Papa's gonna want you to go out to a party..."
"Yeah..." Tara had considered this, as well. "He, um-he won't find out...if you help me."
Donny's eyes widened. Tara had never been one to break the rules; little things here and there, like the trip to the ice cream parlor, but never anything so big. Even the suggestion was unprecedented. "What do you mean?"
"Chances are he'll be out late on Friday, right? It's only a problem if he gets back before I do. If you can stay awake until he gets in, and call this phone number as soon as he does-" Tara produced a Post-it note with Faith's cell phone number jotted down on it. "-I can hurry home. It shouldn't take me but a few minutes, since it's just up the street. We'll say that I had to make an emergency trip to the pharmacy; he won't ask any more questions about that."
"Why would you have to make an emergency trip to the phar-oh. Never mind." The boy held up his hand to keep his sister from answering. "You'll need to, uh-"
"Already taken care of." Tara smiled. She looked at her brother hopefully. "So, are you in?"
Donny let out a long breath, craning his head back onto the arm of the sofa. "Guuuh. This is a really bad idea. But, yeah, I'm in."
"Thank you!" Tara launched herself at Donny, pulling the boy into a tight hug, out of which he half-heartedly tried to wriggle free. She pulled back, her hands resting upon his shoulders, and looked at him seriously. "Really, thank you, Donny. I-I really need to get out of here for an evening. And Faith seems really nice; she said she would help me make some friends around here."
Tara picked up on the subtle undertones, and decided to broach the subject tentatively. "How's, uh-how's school going?"
"Actually fine, or 'I wish my sister would stop being so nosy' fine?"
Donny rolled his eyes. "It's okay. I don't really talk to many people, I guess. The work's fine. I mean, I'm doing all right with my classes. I don't think my math teacher understands probability."
Tara's brow furrowed. "I don't think I understand probability," she admitted.
Donny sat up straight and cleared some magazines off the coffee table, making space for an imaginary example. "Say you're on a game show, okay? You get ten green discs and ten red discs, and there are two identical boxes with lids. The host asks you to put the twenty discs into the two boxes in any manner you choose. Then, they blindfold you and move the boxes around so you can't tell which is which. You must reach into either box and pull out a disc. If it's green, you win a car or something. If it's red, you lose. So how do you put the discs in the boxes to give you the best chance at winning?"
As her brother rattled off the set up, Tara became increasingly befuddled, so that by the time he reached the question, she was thoroughly lost. "Um, all the green ones in one box; all the red ones in the other?" she guessed.
"How often would you win, if you did that?"
"You don't know which box is which?"
"Right. You pick randomly."
"Well, you'd pick the green box half the time then, right?"
"Exactly," Donny verified. "If you do that, you win half the time."
"So is that the answer?"
"Well, what happens if you move some of the greens from the one box into the one with all the reds?"
"I-I don't know. You still win if you pick the green one, but if you pick the other one it's up in the air; maybe you win, and maybe you lose?"
"Yes!" Donny nodded triumphantly, as though he'd just proven an important point. "You win half the time outright, and then the other half of the time you might still win. So you win more than half of the time, right?"
"I guess so, yeah. Because there's greens in the red box, now."
"Exactly. My math teacher doesn't get that. She says you can't get better than a 50% chance. We argued about it for fifteen minutes."
Tara blinked. "Now my skin and my head hurt."
"Sorry," Donny chuckled.
"You feel like watching a movie?"
"Hm. What movie?"
"Let's see what's on." Tara retrieved the remote from the table where Donny had placed it, and began flipping through the channels. "Ooh, have you seen 'The Sting?'"
"Un uh." Donny saw the details for the movie scroll up on the screen. "Ew, made in nineteen seventy-three? No, thanks."
"Trust me: you'll love it!" Tara promised.
"Hey, don't you play innocent victim with me," Buffy challenged. "You earned your dousing fair and square."
A grumpy and bedraggled Willow harrumphed. She was sitting on a pool chair, wrapped in both her own towel and Buffy's. Her damp hair hung in crimson tendrils; some were still plastered to her face and neck.
"Excuse me?" Both girls turned at the sound of a voice, and found a familiar blond boy standing nearby, a book clutched nervously in his hands. When he saw he had their attention, he stepped forward, offering the book to Willow. "Uh, you dropped this, back there by the pool."
Willow accepted it gratefully. "Thanks so much. Hey, don't you work at that diner on Route One?"
The boy beamed, surprised that anybody would remember him. "Sure do! I'm Andrew."
Buffy's eyes widened. "Hey, weren't you the one who spilled-"
"So!" Willow interjected hastily. "You're a student here?"
Andrew nodded proudly. "That's right. I'll be the first in my family to go to college. Well, I guess my brother Tucker went to college, but only for a couple weeks. There were, uh, incidents."
"Wait, Tucker Wells?" Buffy asked. "They told us about this during my tour; didn't he release a pack of wild-"
"There were incidents," Andrew repeated.
"So, um, don't take this the wrong way," Willow said, "but how can you be a student here? Aren't you...I don't know, a little young?"
"I'm sixteen," Andrew stated, defensively. "I started early, and got moved ahead a grade." His tone was not boastful, but deflated, and Willow wondered how much the age difference had made school difficult for the boy.
"So you're sixteen years old, a college freshman, and working?" Buffy counted the items off on her fingers. "Boy do I ever feel like an underachiever. You two are going to give me a complex. Come on, let me redeem some of my pride; I'll bet I can out-ice-cream you both." She nodded toward the tables that University staff had set up, upon which sundae ingredients lay.
Willow and Andrew exchanged a look of solidarity, then turned on Buffy. "Oh, you're on," they said in unison.
Forty-five minutes later, Buffy and Andrew sat at a nearby table while Willow tossed and turned in a pool chair, moaning and clutching her belly. Buffy seemed amused, but the boy still shuddered at the grim spectacle he'd just witnessed. "I thought she was bluffing," he admitted, the tone of his voice somewhere between awe, admiration, and horror.
"So Andrew, which classes are you going to be taking?" Buffy asked.
Andrew ticked off his courses on his fingers. "General Astronomy, Object-Oriented Programming, Calculus I, Mechanics and Particle Dynamics, the Freshman Honors Colloquium and, um, WMST200."
"Isn't that a women's studies class?"
Andrew shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Uh, so which are you taking?" he asked, leaving the question unanswered.
Buffy tried to remember her schedule. "Some human development class, Intro to Criminology, Intro to Dance, Psych 100, and, uh-"
Willow hiccoughed, then groaned when the spasm shook her over-full tummy. Andrew looked at the redhead worriedly. "Should we take her to the health center? Or a hospital, maybe?"
Buffy dismissed her ailing friend with a wave of her hand. "She'll be fine. Believe me, this isn't the first time she's come out the surprise victor in a sweets-stuffing contest. Oh! Mythology of Ancient World Civilizations; taught by, get this, Dr. Rupert Giles."
"Whoa, you're in Dr. Giles' class?" Andrew's eyebrows rose high on his forehead.
"Yeah." Buffy's eyes narrowed dubiously. "Why?"
"Haven't you heard about him?"
"No. Heard what?"
"A few years ago, he went on a camping trip with his wife and daughter, I guess? So, something happened, and they both mysteriously disappeared. They say he went a little crazy, claiming all sorts of things about a weird creature in the woods taking them. Everyone thought he must have killed them, but they couldn't ever find the evidence to prove it."
"A weird creature?" Buffy asked skeptically.
"The guy's a total psycho, if you ask me," Andrew remarked.
"Will, how come the Internet didn't say our teacher was crazy? Shouldn't there be stars for that?"
Willow eased onto her stomach, taking a sharp breath as the pressure in her abdomen shifted. "Probably because it didn't happen," she replied. "It's most likely an urban legend, just like that haunted house they talked about during Overnight Stay."
"No, it's true," Andrew insisted. "Tucker told me so."
There was a moment of silence, during which both girls considered the reliability of Andrew's source, but neither was willing to voice her objection. Finally, Willow shifted tracks. "So, Andrew, how do you like working at the diner?"
"Meh." The boy shrugged. "It's not too bad; you know: waiting tables is waiting tables. I will say it's nice to have extra spending money, though. You like the food there?"
"It's really good, actually. Excellent spanikopita. Oh, that reminds me: we were talking about the paintings, today. You know, the ones on the wall, there? I was wondering if you knew where the owner bought them?"
"He didn't. One of the waitresses made them. Tara Maclay. She brought them in a couple days ago."
Willow gaped. "Tara painted those?" Even Buffy looked impressed.
"Yup. She said she brought 'em from home, and didn't have room for them in her apartment or something."
"That's...wow. Does she paint often?"
"I really don't know," Andrew replied apologetically. "She just started working there a week ago, a couple days after me, in fact. I'm pretty sure she just moved here."
"Oh, right, she mentioned that. Wait, is she a student at College Park, too?" Willow frowned. "You know, I didn't even think to ask her, when we mentioned that we were. That would have been polite."
Andrew shook his head. "She's not. Her dad got a job somewhere in the area, I think, so they moved here."
Willow added this tidbit of information to her mental list of Things Tara, which she hadn't even realized she was keeping. She was still dazzled by the notion that the marvelous paintings had been created by their bashful, stuttering waitress. 'Of course!' she thought, as the piece of a puzzle that'd been bothering her fell easily into place. 'That smile.' Remembering how Tara had given her a crooked smile when she'd made the lemonade joke, Willow now realized that the woman in the painting had the same quirky expression. 'The same crystal blue eyes, too. There is so much genuine caring in those eyes-' She paused in her thoughts. 'Huh. I guess I remember what her eyes look like.'
"You think she'd sell any of her paintings?" Buffy asked.
Willow snapped out of her internal monologue. "Buffy!" she sputtered, clearly shocked at the suggestion.
"What?" the blonde asked. "I was just asking; you said you wanted some paintings, and now we know a painter."
Willow was stuck. She couldn't very well argue with Buffy's logic, yet she couldn't explain her feelings, either. Somehow, she just knew that anything Tara painted would be special; it would hold some kind of sentimental value to the girl, some piece of her heart. The thought of anybody asking to purchase them, as though they were nothing more than merchandise, felt...cheap.
"I couldn't say," Andrew responded. "Honestly, we haven't talked much; it's been really busy at the diner with all the students moving in, and Tara..." He shrugged. "Well, she's pretty quiet. She kind of keeps to herself, most of the time."
"Well, of course she does," Willow exclaimed, as a thought dawned upon her. "She just moved here, and she probably doesn't know anyone at all. Buffy, we should ask her to come to the Magic Box with us!"
"Aww," Andrew cooed. "Um, I don't really know anyone here, either," he hinted.
Buffy, noting her friend's enthusiasm, reminded her, "We were going to go Tuesday morning; she might have to work, then."
"She does work Tuesday, until four, I think," Andrew acknowledged. "Although, I've got Tuesday morning off..."
"So, we can plan to go in the evening, then," Willow decided.
"Sounds like a plan," Buffy agreed. Andrew sighed in disappointment.
"Well, now that I'm not about to detonate in a burst of ice cream and sprinkles, maybe we should head back to the dorms? My clothes smell like chlorine, and it's gonna start making me dizzy if I don't hop in the shower."
"Yeah, good call," Buffy said. "I'm just about pooled out. Really nice to meet you, Andrew."
The three said their good-byes, and the two girls departed, following the sidewalk around the recreation center, then the dining hall. When the reached the south side of the quad, they split to return to their respective dormitories.
Alone at last, Willow reflected upon her suggestion to invite Tara along to the shop. She hadn't really given it much thought; the idea had appeared in her head, and she'd just blurted it out. But now that she had the time to consider it, she wondered whether it had been a good idea. After all, Buffy had known her long enough to read Willow's deepest secrets like an open book, and Willow was certain she wasn't ready for Buffy to know what she was having trouble admitting even to herself: that she kind of sort of maybe had a crush on Tara Maclay.
"Tare. Hey, Tara." Donny nudged his sister's shoulder, and her eyes fluttered open. "Welcome back to the world of the living," he quipped.
Tara opened her mouth to reply, but all that came out was an unexpected yawn. She covered it with the back of her hand, sitting up straight and stretching her back, as well. "Mrr. Whattimesit?" she murmured, still groggy from her nap.
"It's not even eight thirty," her brother answered. "You're tired today, huh?"
"I didn't sleep well," Tara explained. "Uh, actually, I hardly slept at all, just an hour or so."
"Guh. Go to bed," Donny instructed, appalled. Tara stood unsteadily, and took a step toward the kitchen to turn off the lights, but her brother blocked her way. "I'll get 'em. Go, go, go." He began to usher her down the hallway, but Tara held up her hand.
"I'll actually sleep out here, if you don't mind me taking over the common room," she said. "It's where I finally fell asleep last night, so...maybe it'll work, again."
"Okay, that's fine. I was gonna read for a bit, so it's all yours." Donny shut off the TV and the moved about the apartment, turning off all the lights. "G'night, Tare," he said, before shuffling down the hallway to the bedroom.
"Goodnight, Donny. Sweet dreams."
Unlike the previous night, sleep came swiftly for Tara. One moment she was listening to click of the floor lamp in the bedroom she shared with Donny, and the rustling of the covers as he crawled into bed, and the next moment she was roused from a deep slumber by the jangle of keys in the apartment door's lock. The handle shook, and she heard the keys clatter to the ground outside the door. Muffled curses wafted in from the outer hallway. On the second attempt, the door swung open. With her eyes still closed, but her body suddenly very alert, Tara listened to her father mutter to himself as he plodded into the apartment. Usually, he'd stumble down the hallway and collapse into bed; sometimes, he'd beeline for the bathroom. Today, he did neither. After closing the door behind him, Tara hadn't heard him move but three steps from the entryway, eight feet away from where she lay. She was afraid to look; an acrid taste pooled in her mouth when she realized he was standing there watching her sleep.
Her heart thudded painfully when he took the first step toward the couch, his feet dragging over the carpet. She could hear his labored breath, undoubtedly smelling of salt and liquor. He paused again when he reached the sofa, while Tara's mind screamed, 'Go to bed! Go!' Her fingernails dug into her palms, leaving a series of crescent indentations. She couldn't restrain a whimper when his weight on the cushion tipped her head back against his leg. She stiffened when his fingers brushed strands of hair from her damp forehead. He leaned over her, the rank scent of spirits and loneliness heavy in his voice. "You're so beautiful..." 'Goddess, no-' "...Help me, Helen." By the time his rough, callused fingers skimmed the sun-kissed skin at the hem of her shorts, Tara was elsewhere, breathing in the scents of crisp lavender and pungent wormwood in her flower garden.