"Comfrey," Tara stated, after examining a bell of purple petals, which dangled underneath a curved stem with fuzzy leaves. "For...athsma?"
Helen Maclay smiled proudly. "And splints, strains, and sprains-very good, sweetheart." She saw her daughter reaching for the flower, and gently grasped her hand. "Oh, be careful, Tara-not without gloves; this one can give you a rash." The woman loosened the knotted cord of the big straw hat she wore to readjust it upon her head, then wiped a handkerchief across her brow. "My little medicine girl," she cooed, ruffling Tara's hair. "You're going to know more than me, one of these days, you know. Then, you'll be the one giving me tests!"
"Can I have a really hard one?" Tara asked, bounding to her feet and reaching out to help her mother up.
Helen struggled to stand, flexing her back and ineffectually brushing at the backside of her light blue cotton skirt, which had become caked with dirt. "Goodness, child, what a joy it must be to have such energy." Still holding Tara's hand, she walked to the end of the row. "So, it's a challenge, you want, hm? Well, then, how about these?" She swept her other hand before her, indicating a low bush covered by symmetrical white flowers with bright yellow florets.
"Why, Momma, that's easy," Tara frowned. "They're just daisies!"
"Oh, yes, they look very much like daisies, don't they? But here, close your eyes," Helen instructed. She moved behind Tara, who came up only to her breast, and wrapped her arms tenderly around the young girl's shoulders, pressing a kiss at the very top of her head. Together they stood, mother and daughter, with their eyes closed and swaying gently. "Now, take a deep breath," Helen said, doing so herself. "What do you smell?"
Tara drew in a lungful of air. "I smell...lemons?" she replied uncertainly. She felt her mother nod, the woman's chin tickling her hair. "Oh! I see," she said excitedly, "they smell better than daisies! But what are they, Momma?"
"It's feverfew," her mother answered. "Remember sachets we made, last spring? The ones you loved to smell? That citris scent was from the feverfew."
"What do you grow it for?" Tara inquired. "What does it do?"
"Oh, it's for headaches, I suppose. But really, I just love the aroma," Helen admitted with a laugh. Tara loved her mother's laughter; it always sounded so full of life, so carefree, as though she was putting her whole heart behind it, and holding nothing back. She'd never heard anyone else laugh like that. It seemed such a shame, Tara thought, that the world would never again hear such joy.
"Do you still talk with her?" Willow asked. The two girls were holding hands, standing before a marble headstone. A brisk wind whipped through the cemetery, tugging at their hair and rustling their clothes. It was chilly, and Tara nestled up against Willow to share her warmth, resting her head on the girl's shoulder.
"Sometimes," she answered. "I used to, every night. I'd sit on my bed and look out the window at the stars, remembering how we'd lie down out in the yard on old blankets, making up constellations and watching for shooting stars. I wasn't sure where she was, anymore, whether she was up there with stars, or-or somewhere else." Tara sighed, tucking her cold fingers into the pockets of Willow's heavy pea coat. "It got harder to hear her, though, you know? After a while, it-it started to feel like I was just making up her replies. Just talking to myself. It was-it was kind of scary, like I was alone."
Willow reached an arm around Tara's waist and gave her a comforting squeeze. "You're not alone."
Tara closed her eyes and whispered her thanks, content to be snuggled by the redhead. When the wind picked up again, Willow sheltered Tara under her arm, and they moved with it, retreating behind a massive oak tree.
"Are you guys coming up or not?" Hannah asked impatiently from one of the middle branches. "We're going to miss the movie."
"Oh, sorry," Tara apologized. "Willow, do you need a boost?" She turned, but saw only her brother playing in the sandbox, building a magnificent sandcastle; otherwise, the yard was empty.
"Tara, I'm up here. Hurry!" Willow's voice came from high above, and Tara craned her head back, peering up to the very top of the tree, where the slender branches swayed dangerously with the wind. The redhead was perched precariously on one of the limbs next to Buffy, who had a length of string wrapped intricately around her fingers. Willow hooked the sides strings with her pinkies and pinched something in the center, then stretched her hands apart, expecting a new pattern but ending up with a tangled knot. She frowned.
The rough bark dug into Tara's bare feet as she climbed, frantically trying to reach Willow. She winced when a splinter dug into her palm, and she halted her ascent to dig it out. It was hard to see the tiny sliver of wood in the dim light, and she chastised herself for not thinking to bring a pair of tweezers. Tara almost had a grasp on the splinter when the lights went out entirely and the previews began. She crawled out further onto the branch, keeping her weight off the injured hand, and took the seat next to Hannah. On the screen, a cheerful employee in a white lab coat stood behind a counter and helped an elderly man with his prescription. "I can't believe they have commercials before movies, now," Hannah whispered. "What's the world coming to?"
When the commercials were over, a message instructed everybody to note where the theater exits were located, in case of a fire. Moments later, a shrill ringing pealed through the room. "Shit!" Hannah cursed, fitting her soda into her seat's cupholder. "Come on, Tare. Somebody pulled the fire alarm." The siren repeated its warning. Tara fumbled with her seatbelt, but something was jammed; she couldn't get the catch to release. Hannah was in the aisle, waiting, but the tide of panicked moviegoers carried her quickly toward the exit. Once more, the alarm rang, and Tara thought it didn't sound like any fire alarm she'd ever heard.
"Nobody's picking up," Faith shrugged, returning the phone to its cradle on the wall.
Richard was hunched over a large skillet, thrashing a whisk through a floury mixture. On the stovetop were three pots of various sizes, all begging desperately for the cook's immediate attention. He paused just long enough to take the pan off of the heat and reach for a carton of eggs. "Hm?" he grunted, breaking one egg after the other into the skillet and continuing to blend the concoction.
"Nobody's answering the phone at T's." Faith watched her boss check the gauge on a candy thermometer, which was poking out from a saucepan full of cooking oil. When he dropped a dollop of the mixture into the oil, it sizzled and snapped. Faith eyed the other pots, one of which was in danger of boiling over. "Are you sure you don't need any help with those?"
"No, thanks. I need you to cover Tara's tables until we can reach her or find somebody else who can come in." Richard wiped a dishtowel across his brow and checked the clock. "Try her again in ten minutes, and see if you can reach Amy, in the meanwhile."
The morning Route One traffic blared across the restaurant as the diner's door swung open, and Faith dashed out of the kitchen to greet the newcomers. It was just one customer, a skinny redhead in khaki shorts and a red 'Fear the Turtle' tee shirt. Faith noticed that one of her sneakers had its laces done up incorrectly, the strings pulled together in a knot and trailing behind. She had an iPod tucked into one of her pockets, and was coiling up a pair of headphones in her hands.
"Hi, welcome to Plato's," Faith said, stepping closer. "Just one?"
The girl smiled, but shook her head. "I'm actually, um, looking for Tara Maclay. Is she around?"
Faith smirked. "Heh. You n' me both; she went missing for her 8am shift."
"Oh? Is she sick?"
"Hell if I know; she didn't show, and we haven't been able to reach her, this morning. Gonna try again in a few minutes, if you wanna stick around n' see." Faith extended her arm to an open table. "Grab some coffee, or something?"
The redhead shifted from one foot to the other indecisively. "Um...hm. Thanks, that sounds really nice, but I don't think I can stay long," she finally admitted. "Would it be okay to leave a message for her, in case you do reach her?"
Faith tilted her head and removed the pencil she had tucked behind her ear, and produced a notepad. "Okay, shoot."
"All right, uh, my friend Buffy and I are going to this New Age store on Tuesday, and we wanted to invite Tara along. I mean, because she sounded like she'd enjoy it, and she was the one who told us about it-not a completely random invitation or anything. We're going after four, 'cause I think she's off by then, and-"
Faith's hand stilled on the paper for a moment. Yesterday, when Tara had come into the kitchen in a state of near panic, asking if anyone knew of any New Age gift shops, she had wondered if perhaps a customer had asked-possibly a cute guy that had made the waitress weak in the knees. She'd even gone so far as to scan Tara's section, hoping to identify him, but hadn't had any conclusive findings. Now, the pieces were laid out in front of her-the awkward redhead was indeed with a friend yesterday, and they had both been present when Andrew spilled the water the day before, and Tara had gone the rest of the day with a certain glow and a dreamy smile. The evidence was clear. 'She must have a thing for that pretty, petite blonde,' Faith figured. 'Huh, who'd have thought. Go, T!'
"-not that it wouldn't be nice or anything, it's just that, I mean, well, when most people extend an invitation, they-"
"Whoa, whoa," Faith interrupted, shocked that the girl still hadn't taken a breath. "Back up a few disclaimers." She tapped the tip of her pencil on the pad. "Tara's invited to go shopping at the magic shop on Tuesday at four by Buffy and...who are you?"
"Oh! Sorry, I'm Willow."
"...Willow?" Faith repeated.
"Uh huh. Like the tree."
"Okay, cool." Faith finished writing. "I'll let her know. I'm Faith, by the way. Are you sure I can't get you a coffee or anything?"
Willow shook her head. "No, thanks. I've got to run. But it was nice to meet you." She backed up toward the door. "Thanks, again!"
"Later." Faith saw the girl out, then turned back to her tables, working over this new bit of information in her mind. 'So T's got a thing for the ladies. Yeah, it's got to be that Buffy girl. At least she's got good taste. Hm, have I ever seen her express interest in anyone else? Oh God, have I ever seen her express interest in me?' Faith's eyes widened with the thought, and she rummaged through her small handful of Tara memories. 'She does always seem kind of nervous and stuttery, but I'm pretty sure she's like that with everybody.'
One of the many diner customers held up his hand to get Faith's attention, so she abandoned her thoughts to rush over to the table. She waited tables for the next several minutes, and when she next had a moment to breath, she spun through the kitchen punched a number into the phone. A muffled voice answered. "Hello?"
Tara sat in the back of the now-empty theater, struggling with the buckle of her seatbelt, which still wouldn't release. The fire alarm had long since stopped, but the rest of the audience hadn't yet begun to filter back in. She heard the aisle door swing open somewhere below, and she clawed frantically at the catch. One of her nails got wedged between two pieces of metal and a jagged piece tore free. Blood beaded up to the surface and drizzled down her finger, making the buckle slippery and even more difficult to manipulate.
Heavy footsteps clomped up the aisle. Tara made one more desperate attempt at the seatbelt, but one of her hands slipped off of the buckle and slammed into the sharp corner of the armrest. Her entire lower arm went numb, and she examined the skinned knuckles intently. The footsteps came to a halt beside her.
"You've gone n' hurt yerself," Mr. Maclay slurred, reaching for her injured hand. Tara tried to pull it back, but it only tingled and wouldn't move. The man lifted her arm, causing a drop of blood to fall from the wound to her knee; she felt it dribble down her shin, and over her entire body her skin crawled.
"N-no, Papa. It's okay. I'll just g-get a bandage-"
"Nonsense, nothin' we can't take care of, here." Her father dabbed at the shredded gash with a crumpled tissue, then brought her fingers to his lips, planting a kiss on the wound and taking the very tips into his mouth. Tara winced when the contact made the raw cut burn. "See, 'sall better," the man insisted. "Now, whatsa problem with yer belt, hm? Got it stuck?" His breath reeked of liquor; Tara scrunched up her nose in disgust and squirmed in her seat, but the jammed belt held her firmly.
"Lookit, 'seasy, you jus' take this li'l bit here, n' push it through the hole," Mr. Maclay instructed, demonstrating on his own tattered leather belt. The buckle opened easily, and its weight carried several inches of the belt clattering down into the space between his armrest and the cushion. Tara's tummy churned queasily when her father carried her hand, still twinging with pins and needles, to his lap, and deftly undid the button of his jeans. His other arm circled her upper back, and he gripped her far shoulder tightly. "C'mere, honey. Help me with th'zipper, hm?" he pleaded.
"P-papa, I-I don't f-feel so good. I th-think I'm going to b-b-be sick," Tara whimpered. Her father took her wrist and eased her hand lower, until-
Tara woke with a start, her stomach nearly in her throat. A thin film of sweat coated her skin. She threw back the afghan and tumbled off the sofa, half-scrambling, half-crawling to the bathroom, where she was violently sick. She retched until the contents of her stomach were completely purged, then trembled with every dry heave that continued to rack her body. When the spasms ebbed, Tara collapsed to the cold vinyl floor, panting in shallow, ragged breaths.
"Hi, are you looking for Willow?"
It took Buffy a second to realize who had answered the phone. "...Cordelia?"
"Yeah, who's this?"
"This is Buffy Summers," she replied. "I guess Willow's not there?"
Cordelia's voice crackled over the phone line. "No, she took off earlier. Really early for a Saturday, actually. I'll never understand people who do the early morning thing on weekends. At least she was quiet. Anyway, I think she might have been going for breakfast, or something."
Buffy considered this. "Oh. Huh. Buffyless breakfast. Well, Will wouldn't eat alone; she's probably with Oz, I guess."
"Yeah, Willow's boyfriend; he's over in Easton Hall."
After a short pause, Cordelia asked, "Willow has a boyfriend?" Her tone was incredulous.
"Heh. Don't sound so shocked," Buffy joked. She understood where Cordelia was coming from. When Oz had first asked Willow out in high school, Buffy could hardly believe it herself; the shy, neurotic bookworm had always seemed light years behind the rest of the class when it came to social confidence and dating. While she loved Willow dearly, it had been hard to picture her so much as kissing a boy, let alone going out with a cool musician type like Oz.
Cordelia must have realized how she sounded. "Oh, right. No, I mean, of course she could be dating somebody. I guess I'm just surprised; we've been here three days, and I've neither seen nor heard mention of a boyfriend. I guess I haven't been around the room, much. I'm kind of the phantom roommate."
"Yeah, how's stuff going with Tri Delta?" Buffy asked.
"Oh, I don't know. It's...okay, I guess," Cordelia picked her words carefully. "You know, when I was in high school, I had the whole thing planned out. My friend Harmony, who was a grade above me, well, her older sister was in Delta, and it all sounded really appealing to us-the sisterhood, the free introductions to hot college guys, the great parties, the easy social networking, plus getting to give something back to the community, you know? Well, maybe it's Karma, but they all seem kind of...I don't know, shallow?"
Cordelia sighed. "Yeah...I, uh...I wasn't the nicest person in high school, I guess. I probably could have been the spokeswoman for shallow. You know how high school is: the geeky ones all get lined up like lambs to the slaughter, and Harm and I...well, we owned the slaughterhouse."
Buffy could only laugh, because she knew exactly how high school was. Her shot at being among the ranks of the stuck-up elite had come to an abrupt end when she'd befriended Xander and Willow. Girls who had been treating her with syrupy sweetness one day had turned into jackals the next. "Well, maybe rooming with Will is supposed to be like your big chance at redemption, 'cause Willow makes your standard geek look like a total rebel."
"Yeah, I can kind of see that," Cordelia admitted. "She seems nice enough, though."
"Oh, yeah, don't get me wrong. She's an absolute sweetheart, and one of the most loyal friends I've ever had. Willow's totally good people."
"You guys do sound close. That's cool."
"Best buds since sophomore year!" Buffy proclaimed proudly.
"Must be really nice," Cordelia said. "One of the drawbacks to the catty cliques we had in high school? The bonds aren't exactly the tightest, being based on, well, trying to be better than everyone else, so they end up getting severed when everyone leaves for college. I lost touch with most of my friends over the summer. Now it's just Harm, and we're kind of...meh."
"Well, feel free to hang with Will and I, any time," Buffy offered. "Actually, what are you up to right now? Wanna grab breakfast or go to the pool or something? Or you could introduce me to some of those hot college boys you mentioned earlier, hm?"
Cordelia's laughter carried over the phone. "Yeah, thanks, I'd like that a lot."
Somewhere between the second and the third ring, Tara decided she needed to answer the phone. Despite her desires, she knew she couldn't just lock herself in the bathroom all day, and maybe the call was important. What if it was about Donny? What if it was-'Oh, Goddess!' she thought. 'What time is it?' Tara burst out of the bathroom, rushed down the hall, and lunged for the phone in the kitchen just before its fifth ring.
"H-hello?" she panted.
"...Jesus, T. You sound like death."
"Faith?" Tara's heart thudded. The sun was streaming in through the windows, and there were dishes in the sink; clearly her father and brother had already eaten breakfast. "W-what time is it?"
"Almost ten thirty," Faith chuckled at the other end of the line. "What's goin' on? I've been tryin' to reach you for an hour. You really sound awful. You okay?"
"I-I've b-been sick. I'm so sorry! Is it v-very busy?" Tara struggled to keep her stutter under control.
"Yeah, it's hoppin'," Faith shared, "but don't worry too much. We got Amy to cover for you when we couldn't reach you earlier. Just wanted to make sure everything was okay, is all."
"I'm so sorry I didn't call," Tara apologized. "I-I didn't realize w-what time it was; I'm kind of loopy, still."
"Well, no problem, happens to us all," Faith assured her. "Just make sure you're real nice to Amy next time you see her, hm? And get some rest; get healthy."
"Oh, hey, before I forget: some girl was in here before lookin' for you. The friend of that blonde girl, Buffy?"
Tara's breath hitched. "Willow?"
"Yeah. She said you were invited to some New Age shopping thing with the two of them, after your Tuesday shift."
"R-really?" Tara could hardly believe her ears. 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to spend time with Willow!' Her heart fluttered, and a giddy energy coursed through her body. 'Wait...I'm going to spend time with Willow!' The energy quickly congealed into a nervous lump in her chest.
"See? Only here a week, and you're already getting' in with the college crowd," Faith said. "Already got a Tuesday shopping date and a Friday party! So you better get feeling okay quickly: time's a'tickin'! Oops, gotta go; Richard's yellin' something. Bye!" The call disconnected before Tara could even say goodbye. She stood staring at the phone a minute, as if it held all the answers to her mental whirlwind.
'What are you doing, Tara,' she thought to herself. 'You're not good with people; you're just going to make a fool of yourself.' She closed her eyes, and let the image of the cheerful redhead fill her mind. 'Yeah, but it'll be with Willow. And she wants me to come along!' The thought alone dragged her out of her morning's queasiness. Maybe she could fit in with the college crowd; she'd certainly rather be there than here. Tara hung up the phone and walked into the common room, eyeing her pair of sneakers, which were discarded haphazardly by the entrance. 'Okay, time for a walk.'
Willow hurried to catch the door to Dorchester Hall before it swung closed, and trailed in behind a group of students who were bringing lunch back from the dining hall. Since she didn't know any of them, she distracted herself by reading the various fliers that peppered the walls in a colorful mosaic while they all waited for the elevator. By the time it came, such a crowd had gathered that Willow instead opted to take the stairs, and she huffed and puffed her way up to the third floor. The door opened out into a hallway that looked similar to her own, except with perhaps a few more years worth of dirt in the hard-to-reach places. She covered her ears and gave a wide berth past a room emitting earth-shaking bass notes, and knocked on the third door from the end of the hall.
"Hang on a sec!" called a high-pitched, nasally voice. Moments later, the door opened a crack, revealing a short, plump girl in striped shorts and an inside-out tee, her hair still damp from a recent shower. "Hi," she greeted.
"Hey, sorry. Is Buffy here?" Willow asked.
"Uh uh." The girl shook her head, sending droplets of water flinging everywhere. "She was here like twenty minutes ago, but I think she headed out while I was in the shower."
"Oh. Do you happen to know where?"
"No idea, sorry."
"You're her roomie, I take it?"
"Yeah, hey, I'm Beth."
Willow smiled. "I'm Willow. Buffy and I went to high school together."
"Cool. Um, yeah I'll let her know you stopped by." Beth seemed uncomfortable standing there with the door open, dripping, so Willow signed off on the conversation.
"Okay, great, thanks. Uh, nice to meet you."
Willow noticed after Buffy's roommate closed it behind her that they'd hung a message board on the door with 'B & B' written in huge print. Underneath each letter was the resident's name, clearly in its owner's own penmanship. "Well, that's oh for two," she grumbled. "I wonder if Oz will be AWOL, too."
She took her time walking back to North Campus. Although it was almost September, the weather was still unusually warm, and the midday sun did wonders to lighten her mood. She took the scenic route past the Performing Arts Center, avoiding the stadium paths, and cut across the quad to Easton Hall. Once inside, she took the elevator up to the fourth floor.
A sleepy Oz greeted her at the door. "Hey, Will." He stepped aside to let her into the room. Oz had managed a single through pure luck of the draw, and from the looks of it he'd been living out of half-opened boxes for the past several says. The bed wasn't even made; a sheet had been thrown over the mattress, but no pillowcases were to be seen. Clothes in various states of unwash littered the floor. It dawned upon Oz that the room was a sty, and he adopted a sheepish look. "Sorry, it's kind of a mess, I know."
Willow stepped gingerly over a plastic grocery bag that seemed to be serving as a trash receptacle. "You haven't unpacked much."
"Yeah, I haven't really been in the room too much," Oz admitted. "I've pretty much been living at Greg's place. How're things?" He drew the redhead into a hug, and gave her a squeeze.
"Oh, they're great!" Willow exclaimed, her dispiriting morning all but forgotten. "I can't wait for Monday, when classes start; I think I've got some really interesting ones! And the whole being away from home thing? Getting to plan our own schedules, stay up as late as we want, eat whenever and whatever we want...it's like a whole new world, you know? Well, yeah, I guess you do know, 'cause hello, moved out when you were sixteen. But it's just...the idea of having all this freedom is kind of amazing. And maybe a little bit scary and overwhelming, but mostly the amazing thing. Oh, and speaking of planning our own schedules, this being our first weekend on campus together, we should celebrate! You know, do something special?"
Oz sat on the edge of his bed, and Willow perched beside him. He took her hand in his, and rubbed the pad of his thumb over her knuckles. "I couldn't agree more." He leaned in, his face close to hers.
"Great!" Willow gushed, leaping from the bed. "We could go out to eat somewhere nice, tonight?" She cleared the screen saver on Oz's laptop and fired up a search engine to find the most highly recommended places to eat, nearby. "Or, oh! I saw a flier in Buffy's dorm that said an improv comedy group called Sketch-Up is performing on the Mall tonight. I thought that sounded neat. I'm pretty sure it's at nine."
"Uh, Will?" Oz interjected when she paused for breath, then hesitated. "This audition thing, for the Dingoes singer? It was kind of a two night thing, remember?"
Willow stopped her flurry of typing and looked at Oz. "Shoot, you're right, I forgot you'd mentioned that." She sighed. "Sorry for the hyper babbling Willow."
Oz reached out and laid his hand upon her knee. "Hey, no apologies needed. It's cool that you're excited to do something. Look, I'll tell you what-how about if I bow out of the auditions a little bit early? I could swing by your dorm, and we could catch that nine o'clock show?"
Willow beamed and flung her arms around her boyfriend. "Really? That'd be great! That'd be better than great!"
What had started as a short walk had turned into a mile-long trek; once Tara's feet were moving, they drew her toward the campus like a moth to a flame. It was uphill the whole way, and by the time she reached the gallery, her heart was racing and her hair was clinging to the back of her sweaty neck. 'I guess I need more exercise,' she thought, 'the occasional swim isn't cutting it.' The air conditioning that met her when she entered the building was a blessing; for a minute she simply stood and let it bring her temperature back to a more tolerable level.
She didn't bother looking around the building; she knew exactly where she was going: the student art gallery in the large courtyard one level down. As she descended the stairs, she marveled at the pieces that hung suspended from the ceiling. One appeared to be a mobile made mostly of mirrors, which reflected a few colored bulbs with a dazzling effect. Tara's ultimate destination, however, was the back wall, which always seemed to have a new set of paintings on display. She figured they must rotate in the students' work on some schedule. Today, most of them were pieces she had seen during her last visit, but there was one new addition, a massive oil painting easily twice her height, which loomed over the room. Its colors were a rich palette of blues, blacks, and purples, with an occasional jagged white streak cutting across the dark, swirling background.
Tara was startled from her reverie, unsure of how long she'd been staring at the work. A clean-cut, bespectacled man stood behind her, admiring the painting as well. "I'm sorry, w-what?" she asked.
The man nodded, indicating the composition on the wall. "The name of the painting is 'Tempests,'" he clarified.
"Oh...d-did you paint these?" Tara asked, a hint of awe in her voice.
"Good heavens, no," the gentleman laughed, removing his glasses and squinting at the lenses he held up to the light. He exhaled upon them, and produced a handkerchief from his jacket pocket. "This one was painted last semester by a young man in Mr. Windham-Pryce's studio section." Using his glasses as a pointer, he directed Tara's attention to a small, framed card that was clipped into a stand nearby, which held the artist's name and section as well as the painting's title.
Tara leaned in to study the tag that she'd missed, for a moment imagining her own name printed on one of the cards, her own works on display in the gallery. 'Not that I could ever paint something this good,' she decided. The enormous painting towered over her; she could almost feel the swirling vortex of colors moving on the canvas, drawing her in.
"It's quite remarkable, really," the man continued, returning his now spotless lenses to his face. "There are a few standouts every semester in that class. Oh, but where are my manners? I'm Rupert Giles, one of the Classics professors here at the University. I'll be filling in for an art history class this semester, as well, so I expect I'll be around this building quite often."
"I'm Tara. M-Maclay."
"You're an art student, I gather?"
"N-no sir. I wish I was."
"Please: Rupert or Mister Giles. Sadly, I've not yet had the pleasure of being knighted," he said with a wry smile. "You're undecided in your major, then?"
Tara shook her head. "I-I don't actually attend the University."
"Oh, I see. Just visiting?"
"Yes, sir-uh, Mr. Giles. I moved into the high-rises down the street, just last week."
Giles returned his attention to the paintings. "You enjoy the gallery?"
"I love it!" Tara exclaimed. "I try to visit every few days to see what's new."
The professor chuckled. "My dear, it is refreshing to see love for the arts in one so young. If you'd like to follow me, I've got a copy of the gallery's schedule among my effects in the main office."
The two climbed the stairs, with Giles pausing only to condemn the glittering mobile as a "ghastly thing," and entered the office. Giles removed a glossy brochure from a briefcase and handed it to Tara. "I highly recommend Wendy Carson's showing, next month," he advised. "It was terrific, last semester, and it always has some surprising pieces."
"T-thank you so much, Mr. Giles; this is so kind of you."
"Oh, nonsense," he dismissed with a wave of his hand. "I should be thanking you; it's a rarity to see true enthusiasm and appreciation. These students work hard on these works; it's only right that they be viewed by an audience who shares the same passion."
Tara nodded her head in understanding. "They're really incredible," she admitted. "I wish I could paint something halfway as good."
Giles raised an eyebrow. "You're a painter, yourself?" he inquired.
"N-no, it's just a hobby. And it's-it's been a while. That's p-part of the reason I came here; I keep hoping that looking at paintings will b-be motivational."
"Well, stick with it; you never know when inspiration might strike. As much as I'd love to talk with you the rest of the day, sadly, I've got a section in a few minutes."
"Oh, of course. Thanks again, Mr. Giles! M-maybe I'll see you around the building."
The sun had long since set, and the room was as dark as a college dorm room ever really could be; pale light filtered in through a warped blind and mixed with the flickering LEDs on the myriad gadgets connected to the computers in an eerie chartreuse glow. Voices in the hallway grew closer, coming to a halt outside, then a jingle of keys was followed by the door swinging open amidst a tumbling tower of shopping bags.
"Oh my gosh," Cordelia gasped, trying to force her words out through peals of laughter as she entered her room, "and when he tried to run, he forgot all about the scarf, and it set off the store's alarm, so he's-he's-" she dabbed at her eyes, which had begun to tear up from hysterical laughter, "-he's running across the courtyard with mall security in hot pursuit, screaming at the top of his lungs for-"
Buffy, who had been laughing along with her new friend, stepped into the room and flipped on the lightswitch. She dropped her bags and approached one of the beds, her expression shifting from mirth to concern. "-Will?"
Willow squinted at the light, which flooded the room. She groaned and pulled a pillow over her eyes, her muffled voice greeting, "Hey, Buffy."
"You're in bed at nine thirty on a Saturday?"
"You feeling okay?"
"Yup. Fine," Willow replied in a monotone.
Buffy plopped down on the redhead's bed and addressed the talking pillow. "You've got the lines memorized just fine, but the delivery could use some work. C'mon, spill; what's up?"
Watching the awkward exchange from across the room, Cordelia piped up, "Uh, so I'm gonna go hop in the shower; don't mind me." She gathered up her bathroom tote, a change of clothes, and a towel, and crept quietly out of the room when Buffy nodded gratefully in her direction. The blonde then focused back on the lump under the covers.
"Mmm," came the muted reply.
"Willow Rosenberg, you know I can get you to talk," Buffy threatened. "I have my ways, and they are both swift and merciless."
Willow pushed the pillow away from her, revealing a rather glum face. "It's just...been kind of a bad day," she shared.
"Well, I stopped by the diner to invite Tara along on our Tuesday trip, but she was out sick. Then I went looking for you for breakfast, and couldn't find you-"
"-yeah, sorry about that," Buffy broke in. "I called to see what you were up to, and Cordy answered, and we...oh, sorry, I'm being Interrupto-girl. Go ahead."
"No, no, it's not even that," Willow reassured her. "I-I stopped by Oz's-he hasn't even really moved in yet, by the way-and he said he'd be back by nine so we could go to this show on the Mall, and then fifteen minutes ago, he sent a text message saying he was really tired and going to sleep over at Greg's. I don't want to be the neurotic girlfriend, Buffy, and-and I'm glad his band's doing well, but...I mean, I've hardly seen him since we moved in. He used to drop everything at the opportunity to hang out, when we were in high school. I don't know, maybe I've just gotten used to being spoiled. Anyway, things weren't going to hot today, so I thought I'd just give tomorrow a try."
Buffy considered this, then made a decision and shook her head. "Nuh uh. Get up."
"Up," the blonde insisted. "You've got work to do."
"Buffy, I don't-"
"Cordelia wants to make a try for that stuffed turtle, and the guys in the last room are playing that earthquake game."
"You mean Quake III Arena?"
"We need a distraction," Buffy explained, "and nothing distracts nerdy boys like cute, technologically savvy girls who can reduce their video game characters into tiny electronic giblets. Will, you're crucial to the success of the mission!"
Willow pouted. "Can't I just stay in bed and be mopey?"
"Up!" Buffy repeated, throwing back the sheets.
Tara read over the gallery brochure for the hundredth time since she'd returned to her apartment. A loud knock rang out at the apartment door, and she rose from the kitchen stool to answer it. 'Who could that be?' she wondered. Donny was listening to music in their room, and her father never forgot his keys. 'Maybe the music's too loud,' she worried, 'I hope it's not a neighbor complaining.' When she looked through the peephole and didn't see anybody, she furrowed her brow in consternation. 'Am I hearing things, now? They don't deliver packages at this hour, do they?' She swung the door open and stuck her head out into the hallway.
"Surprise!" said a snickering Faith. She held out a heavy grocery bag. "Everything a sick coworker could possibly need: chicken noodle soup, Pepto and antacids, Sudafed, ice cream, and, uh," she coughed. "Ferrisbuellersdayoff. I hope I'm not seriously overstepping, here, you just sounded really awful this morning, and I thought you could use a pick-me-up. Besides, you mentioned yesterday that you didn't know many people-"
"Faith, it's...wow." Tara was at a loss for words, and took a second to gather her thoughts. "Y-you shouldn't have. I mean, you didn't n-need to. This is so nice of you. Um, oh, please come in." She stepped aside and let the leather-clad brunette into the apartment. "Can I take your coat?"