"Brr! I wish this weather would make up its mind," Willow remarked, hopping from one foot to the other as a chilly breeze rushed past the girls. They were huddled together inside of the Plexiglas hut that marked the bus stop, but its walls seemed to do little to stop the gusting wind.
"So you two are freshmen at the University-what do you study?" Tara asked, figuring that conversation would distract them from the chill.
"I'm a criminal justice major," Buffy replied, "and Will's double majoring in Rocket Science and Overachievement."
"Chemistry and Computer Science," Willow clarified. She peered at her friend. "And I'm not the first student to take a heavy course load during their first semester, you know. I mean, Andrew-"
"-Andrew is a freak of nature. Sixteen-year-old brains should not be working through advanced calculus problems," Buffy declared unequivocally. "They should be, I don't know, freaking out about sex and generating creative excuses for backing Mom's car into the garage door."
Tara laughed at Buffy's enthusiasm. "I don't think Andrew's even got his driver's license, yet; his brother picked him up last weekend to take him home."
"Buffy doesn't have a license, either," Willow mentioned. "She's failed the driving test twice."
"Hey! I didn't-well, okay, I did, but it's not like I-look, there were mitigating circumstances, okay?"
Willow grinned at Tara. "Took out three mailboxes and a bird feeder, too."
"I still can't believe I didn't get bonus points for that," Buffy grumbled.
A Metrobus held up traffic as it slowed to a halt in front of the bus stop, and the girls stood clear when the doors hissed open to let off departing passengers. Buffy hopped up the stairs first and paid her fare, then courteously swiped her card for the other two, as well. Nearly all of the double seats had one vacancy since the passengers tended to spread out, meticulously avoiding sitting next to one another. Finding the only open pair, Buffy plopped down and scooted over toward the window. Tara hesitated in the aisle, considering the seat, then stepped forward and offered it to Willow, who trailed behind.
Willow shook her head. "Go on."
"N-no, you should take it; she's your friend."
"It's fine. Go ahead, I don't mind standing," Willow insisted.
"What? Do I smell or something," Buffy huffed, trying her best to appear offended.
"Uh-uh. I think w-we're locked in an endless circle of politeness," Tara explained, giggling.
"It's true," Willow agreed. "We've reached a Standing Impasse."
"You two are both dorks," Buffy declared. She leaned back in her seat at an angle, sprawling her limbs across both cushions, and released an exaggerated sigh of contentment. "Ooh, it's so comfortable!" To her dismay-and the delight of the other girls-a severely obese passenger nudged forward and plunked down into the seat, squeezing the blonde up against the window. For the remainder of the ride, Buffy gazed out the cold panel of glass, listening to the raspy wheezing of her seatmate, while Willow and Tara stood wordlessly in relative comfort, sharing a post and rocking gently with the rumbling motion of the bus.
The girls clambered down the stairs of the bus onto the sidewalk, and headed southward, setting a brisk pace to keep their bodies warm. There was a short, hilly stretch of road before it leveled out into the more welcoming shopping plazas. They walked side by side with Willow in the middle, and the redhead kept her eyes on the sidewalk, carefully skipping over the spaces between the slabs.
"So Buffy," she said, breaking the silence, "what do you think you might get for Dawnie?"
"I really have no idea," her friend replied with a mild shrug.
"Dawn's her sister, right?" Tara asked Willow, ticking the name off on one of her fingers. "Cordelia is your roommate, and Beth is Buffy's?"
"Yup! And Xander's our friend back home. That just about sums it up."
"Don't forget Oz," Buffy added.
Tara blinked. "Oz?"
"He's, uh, my boyfriend," Willow explained, focusing even more intently on the pavement. 'Huh, that's new. Aren't I usually proud and gushing? Since when is having a cool, older, musically-inclined boyfriend something to feel awkward about?'
"Interesting name," Tara remarked, forcing a smile. 'Must be that guy I saw her with at the diner,' she assumed. Her head filled with images of the two redheads locked in an embrace, their lips gliding over each other, and a pang of jealousy shot through her. 'Uh oh, that's not good.'
"Well, Oz is an interesting boy," Buffy teased.
Tara gulped, forcing her mind clear from thoughts of the couple. "Okay. Lots of new names. They're kind of hard to keep straight; I'm not so good with names, and new people is kind of a big thing for me."
"Why's that?" Willow questioned.
"Oh, I'm-I'm kind of, uh, bad at meeting people?"
"I can't imagine why; I think you're-I mean, we-you're doing just fine with us." Willow finished in a rush, happy to have the total failure of a sentence be over.
Tara grinned, grateful for the reassurance. "Thanks. It's easier with you guys. I mean, you're both very, uh…" she trailed off, searching for the right word.
"Awesome?" Buffy supplied.
Willow tried again. "Crazy?"
"Warm," Tara stated. "And approachable. Welcoming. Comfy. Um, yeah, kind of what she said," she agreed, pointing at Buffy. "But probably those other things, too."
Willow snickered. "Just you wait."
"Well, we aim to please," Buffy joked, coming to a halt just outside their destination. "Madame," she said to Willow, holding open the door and stepping to the side with a sweeping motion of her hand.
"Why, thank you," the redhead giggled, reaching for the door herself to hold it for Tara. For a moment, both girls stalled at the door, uncertain who was going where. Thinking fast, Tara slipped by the others and walked backward into the store, chuckling as they untangled themselves. The girls turned as one, and saw the inside of the Magic Box for the first time.
"Huh," Buffy uttered.
"Wow," Tara added.
Willow stood speechless, her eyes widening.
The squat dimensions of the building's exterior were deceptive, for the room before them was massive. Dark mahogany bookshelves with lavish, fluted moldings ran floor to ceiling around the perimeter of the store. The dental trim shelves were beautiful by themselves, but it was their contents that held the girls' stares. Ancient, leather bound tomes with gold trim; dazzling glassworks; colorful, scented votive candles; and hand-carved soapstone boxes were among the myriad treasures that covered the square block shelving, and similar merchandise filled a number of tables and glass display cases that split the room into smaller sections. A sturdy rolling ladder hooked onto a rail atop the shelf, and ran the length of one wall. Near the back of the room, a short flight of padded stairs ascended to a balcony, which circled the entirety of the store. A closed door, neatly tucked under the stairs, sported a sign, which read 'Employees only.'
Ducking under the chakra pendulums that were suspended by sterling silver chains from wooden pegs near the entrance, the girls began a slow circuit of the room, their eyes bulging to take in the shop's many curios. Buffy looked dubiously at a peach moonstone wand, and examined her reflection in a circular mirror with a wooden frame that had what she believed to be a gecko carved into it. Willow pointed out a matching marble mortar and pestle set, and scrunched up her nose while sniffing at several packets of incense. Tara reached out, intending to pluck the metal tine of a instrument that looked strangely like half of a sanded coconut, then seemed to have second thoughts, and instead tucked her hand into her pocket. Finally, they came to the shop's sales counter, behind which stood a woman several years their elder.
"Hello, welcome to the Magic Box," she said, welcoming words but delivered with the boredom of one who has uttered them too often. She peered at the shoppers skeptically, unabashedly looking them over head to toe. "You're not poor college students, are you?"
The girls were taken aback by the brusque greeting, and Tara was the quickest to collect her wits. "Um, I-I'm not. I, uh, can't speak f-for the others," she replied.
A broad smile broke out on the cashier's face, and she quickly circled around the counter and stepped up to Tara's side. "Well, then," she chirped, "I'm Anya. Is there anything I can help you find, this cold and bitter day? We offer a wide variety of interesting and reasonably priced merchandise."
"We're looking for a gift for Buffy's sister," Willow explained. "We'll just look around, if that's alright?"
A frown played at the woman's lips. "Oh, okay." Her tone shifted, and she spoke as if reading from a script. "Of course you are welcome to browse, touch, and possibly rearrange the merchandise, even if you ultimately decide not to purchase anything." With the distasteful words out of her mouth, Anya brightened once more. "If you need help selecting the perfect gift, I will be here at the counter where you would bring your purchases." She returned to her post at the register and turned her attention to a stack of forms, although every few seconds she would glance up to keep tabs on her customers.
"That was abnormal and unsettling," Buffy stated plainly, once the girls had wandered deeper into the store.
"So w-what kind of things does Dawn like?" Tara asked her new friends.
"Oh, you know, gemstones, jewelry," Buffy listed, then shrugged. "Basically everything in here. Candles, incense-"
"She's really been into Tarot cards, lately," Willow mentioned.
Tara nodded agreeably. "Me, too."
"You've used them? I mean, you've done readings?"
"Uh huh. A long time ago, though. I mean, way back in middle school. I-I kind of w-went through a witch phase," Tara confessed, dropping her gaze to her shoes in embarrassment.
"Hah! So did Will, in high school," Buffy snitched.
"I did not!"
"She did. She bought a book from this novelty store, gathered all of these weird ingredients, which smelled awful, by the way, and tried to brew a-"
Willow gasped. "If you finish that sentence, you don't get to copy my Civilizations notes!" She squeaked out the threat hurriedly.
Buffy's mouth flew closed, and she batted her eyelashes innocently.
"Uh, so," Willow shifted awkwardly, scanning the shelves for a distraction. "Ooh! Look at these wind chimes!"
The girls began walking again, with Willow in the lead and the others lagging a step behind. When Tara looked at Buffy expectantly, the shorter girl mouthed, "love potion." Tara stifled a laugh with her hand.
When the dirt-streaked Metrobus pulled up to the bus stop, Willow boarded first. Since it was rush hour, the bus was even more crowded than their last trip had been. Luckily, a couple departing the bus had vacated a pair of seats, and the redhead darted down the aisle to claim them. Tara offered Buffy the other seat, but Buffy shook her head. "Nah, I'll stand this time." The waitress passed her bag-even the bags they gave you at the Magic Box were beautiful, the girls had agreed-to Willow, who stacked it upon the others next to the window beside her. With two girls and a pile of shopping bags squeezed into the already narrow seats, it was a tight fit for Tara to slide onto the cushion, and their elbows bumped against each other until Willow leaned forward to make room for both of their arms.
"This is a good day," Buffy decreed. "I needed my shopping fix, even if it was for my sister." She eyed the number of bags she'd deposited in the aisle by her feet, and tacked on, "Well, mostly for my sister, anyway."
"Yup, I hereby declare this Tuesday a success," Willow agreed.
"Well, it's still early. Got any plans for tonight?"
Willow thought a moment. "The boys on the fourth floor of my dorm, Andrew and the others, are playing board games or something. Wanna join us?"
"Sounds positively nerdy," Buffy joked. "Sure, I'm in."
"How about you, Tara?" Willow offered. "Up for a campus visit?"
'Goddess, yes!' Tara's mind demanded. "Oh, I probably shouldn't-well, you know, maybe-uh, I'd have to borrow a phone to call home, to make sure my brother Donny knows how to reach me. But y-yes, okay." She hoped that her blush wasn't as noticeable on the outside as it felt on the inside. The bus was rumbling along, now, and Tara was very aware of her proximity to Willow. She could feel the wales of the redhead's corduroys brushing the thin fabric of her slacks every time the bus hit a bump or ground to a stop. When it lurched into motion, the sleeves of their coats would touch, and after a few stops Willow relaxed back into her seat, causing their arms to be in constant contact. For the most part they avoided eye contact, occasionally stealing glimpses when the other was turned away, and only once did they catch each other looking at the same instant. Willow offered a sheepish smile, and Tara ducked her head, feeling her cheeks burn.
By the time the girls disembarked, the sun was hanging low on the horizon, its lower edge kissing the top of the library, which was just visible beyond the chapel. They immediately missed the warmth of the bus, for the temperature had dropped even lower during their shopping trip. Willow regretted her lack of gloves, since her bags prevented her from tucking her hands into her coat pockets. The girls walked quickly, crossing Regents Drive and setting off diagonally across the Mall. Near the empty fountain that cut through the very center of the grass, a small group of students huddled together, while several others ran about, dodging and weaving past each other.
"Hey, Tag." Buffy identified the spectacle they were walking past. She noticed that a couple of the players were holding flashlights. "Soon to be Flashlight Tag. You want to ask if we can join in?"
"Hm?" Tara's teeth chattered, and she glanced down at her work attire. "Oh, no thanks. I don't think I'm suitably dressed." She watched the students race up and down the Mall for a minute, then commented, "It does look like fun, though. Have you played?"
Willow adjusted her bags and shook her head. "Not so much. When we were in high school, we didn't have much in the way of a yard-just a thin strip out front."
"Yeah. Our folks weren't too happy with us tearing around in the road when the sun was up," Buffy added. "Being outside during the night was pretty much off limits."
"Not that that stopped you," Willow recalled.
"Why, I haven't the slightest idea what you mean. I was a paragon of parental obedience."
"She sneaked out," Willow explained to Tara.
"A lot," Buffy boasted proudly, dropping the charade. "My mom's a little overprotective."
Tara smirked. "Aren't they all?"
"Not mine," Willow admitted. "She didn't really pay much attention to anything. I probably could have been breeding fighting dogs in my room, and she would have remained completely oblivious."
Buffy scoffed, "But try getting a C-plus on your Home Economics project-"
"-Conniption Queen," Willow finished, rolling her eyes.
Tara's fingers were starting to hurt from both the chill and the rope handle on her shopping bag, which was slowly cutting off her circulation. "Where on campus do you all live?" she asked.
"Well, Buffy's in Dorchester Hall, which is right over there," Willow pointed out an L-shaped brick building on the northwest corner of the Mall, tucked behind the enormous library, which they were quickly approaching. "We'll stop here a sec to drop off Buffy's bags, but then we're headed to Ellicott, my dorm on North Campus."
"Way up at the tippy top of the really big hill," Buffy added. "It's a little hike. Oh, hey, did you want to call home?" She shifted her bags to her left hand, then pulled out her cell phone and passed it to Tara before searching through her pockets for her keys. She opened the door for them, and all three gratefully piled into the heated lobby. "You can wait in the lounge there if you want; I'm just going to dash upstairs and drop these off."
Willow hefted her own bags and trudged into the room, sitting down on the overstuffed sofa with an audible sigh of comfort, but Tara remained in the hallway while she made her call. When finished, she joined the redhead in the lounge. "Hey."
"Hey. Everything okay?" Willow asked.
"Mm hm. I can stay out a while, but, um, I might have to hurry home for-uh, if my f-father gets home, he'll probably want me there. I left this phone number with them; I h-hope that's okay. Sorry, I didn't think to ask."
"That's no prob," Buffy said as she entered the room, picking up on the last line of the conversation. "Just as long as he's not a telemarketer. So! Let's see if we can fit in a game or two of-hey, what are we playing, anyway? It had better not be Trivial Pursuit; with Willow and Andrew playing, it'll be pursuit, all right, and I'll be starting a lap behind."