"No way. Absolutely not."
"Why not?" Buffy argued. "We've got three of each; why can't we just play girls versus boys?"
Andrew disagreed adamantly. "You and Willow have been friends for years, so you can't be on the same team. Everyone knows that friends have the Taboo equivalent of Vulcan mind melds. It would be too easy for you to communicate extra information by using inside jokes, and so forth."
"Well, what about Tara?" Willow countered. "She's our friend, too, and we can't all be on different teams."
"You guys have only known each other a few days, though, and she and I have been coworkers just as long."
"All I know is that you and Willow can't be on the same team," Buffy insisted. "That would be too much excess brainpower on one side. And if Will and I can't be, then I guess you and I have to be."
"Okay, then. How about you, me, and Carl versus Willow, Tara, and Eddie?" Andrew suggested.
"So how does this game work?" Tara asked, grateful that the teams had been decided.
Carl, a lanky Swede with several weeks worth of beard, held up a brightly colored box of cards in one hand, and a pastel blue and hot pink apparatus in the other. "It's easy. We go around a circle, alternating teams. When it's your turn, you have a minute to go through as many cards as possible." He pulled a card out and set the box aside. "Here, the word on this one is 'pasta,' so you've got to get your teammates to guess that, but you have to do so without saying any of the other words on the card."
"No derivations, either," Andrew added.
"Right," Carl continued. "So here it says 'Italian,' but you couldn't say 'Italy,' either. If you say a prohibited word, a member of the other team who is watching over your shoulder will buzz you." He demonstrated by pushing a button on the oddly shaped device, and a loud, electronic honk made the waitress recoil half a foot. "You get a point for every word you get your team to guess. You lose a point if you get buzzed, or if you skip a card-you can do this at any time."
"And tell 'em about the hands thing," Eddie reminded his roommate.
"Oh, yeah. There are some rules about how you get your team to guess the word. You can't use your hands or mime in any way. So if the word is 'hat,' you can't point to your head or anything. You can't use clues like, 'rhymes with cat' or 'has three letters.' You've got to use the word's meaning. You are allowed to say, for example, 'the cat in the blank.' You can also sing."
Willow blanched noticeably at the suggestion, and Eddie grinned at her. "We highly recommend this," he snickered.
"Do we want to make pairs and do a practice round?" Andrew offered.
The players spent a minute matching up with each other, then arranging themselves in a circle such that everyone was sitting next to two members of the opposite team. One member from each team was picked as a scorekeeper and timekeeper, and they rolled a die-Buffy was amused by the quantity of dice with more than the standard six sides that were present in the room-to determine who would begin. The honor fell to Willow, so she slid the box of cards from the middle of the circle to where she was sitting, seiza-style, while Andrew grabbed the buzzer and hovered over her like a vulture. The minute glass was flipped, and Willow quickly drew the first card: 'nightgown.'
"Uh, uh," she reached for words, but they either weren't there, or they were listed on the card in front of her. "Okay, this is something you'd wear to-"
"What?! I didn't say bed! I wasn't going to-"
Andrew pointed at the first prohibited word on the card: 'sleepwear.' "You can't say wear," he explained.
"Oh, jeez," Willow muttered. "I didn't even see that."
"Hey, there's one thing I forgot to mention," Carl remembered, tilting the timer on its side to stop the flow of sand. "If you can get your team to say one of the disallowed words, then you can say it without getting buzzed, while you're on that card. So, here, if you got Eddie to say 'negligee,' then you could use that word in a clue safely."
"Shouldn't be too hard," Eddie pointed out. "I mean, I say that just about every other sentence."
"Okay, ready?" Carl asked, picking up the timer.
Willow nodded, and the boy placed it back down on its end. She reached for another card: 'flamingo.' "Okay! Uh, these are often yard ornaments, they have-" she paused, scanning the list of words, "-wings. They stand on one, uh, foot, and-and they put their heads in the ground!"
"Ostrich!" Eddie called out.
"Gnomes!" Buffy yelped, then remembered she wasn't on Willow's team.
"Flamingos?" Tara guessed.
Willow jumped to her feet. "Yes!" She pointed at Tara. "She got it! She said it!" The redhead did a little dance, spinning in place and wiggling her bottom, and lifting the card over her head from side to side.
"Time's running," Carl pointed out.
"Oh! Right." Willow quickly sat down and grabbed a third card: 'Las Vegas.' "Um, this is a place. There's money-"
"No, no. There are, uh, these ma-uh, devices," Willow hastily corrected herself, and Andrew threatened her with the buzzer, holding it right next to her ear. "With lemons, and you pull on the lever-"
"Watch your hands!" Andrew reminded her, since she was mimicking playing the slots.
"Slot machine!" Eddie shouted.
"Oh! Oh! Uh, Atlantic City!" Tara tried.
"Time!" Carl called, as the last grain of sand fell to the top of the pile in the lower half of the minute glass.
"We got that one," Willow insisted.
"Right, so if this wasn't a practice round, you'd have earned two points for 'flamingo' and 'Las Vegas' but lost one point for getting buzzed on 'nightgown.' So your total score would be one point."
"Does she get a bonus point for the dance?" Eddie asked, and everybody got a good laugh when the girl's cheeks darkened to match her hair.
Andrew held out the box of cards. "Buffy, do you want to take a practice round?"
"Sure." The blonde took the cards and set them on the floor, and Eddie positioned himself with the buzzer behind her.
Buffy drew a card. "Um, you do this...work-out when you want a strong...tummy."
"Sit-ups!" Carl exclaimed.
Buffy tossed the card aside with a smile and drew another. She thought a second. "This keeps beverages chilly."
Buffy shook her head. "It's cup shaped."
"Um, a Thermos?" Andrew guessed.
"Yup!" Buffy gleefully pulled out a third card. "Nasty little bug like things, with p-uh, venomous...butts."
Andrew and Carl looked at the blonde like she had two heads.
"Well, not butts, but long things that stick out from there, and curl over their heads," Buffy clarified.
"Scorpions!" Andrew yelled.
Buffy pointed at the boy, and drew yet another card. "Uh, oh my God." She stared blankly at the words, then glanced at the timer. "Is it worth skipping, at this point?" she asked.
Carl shook his head. "No, try it."
"Okay. Um...it hurts. From food-"
Buffy frowned. "Like that, yeah, but, uh, higher up."
"Oh, oh!" Carl snapped his fingers. "That thing, where you eat ice cream too fast? What's that called?"
"No!" Buffy exclaimed. "It's like-"
"S-Sorry, time's up," Tara apologized.
"Heartburn," Buffy grimaced, throwing the card down in front of her. "How the heck am I supposed to get that?"
"You got three, though," Andrew consoled her, "and no buzzes or skips. That's good for your first try."
This pleased Buffy, and she puffed up. "Hey, yeah! So we're winning."
"Well, those were practice rounds," Carl pointed out. "But yeah, we would be kicking their butts. Tara, you want a trial round, too, since you haven't played before?"
Tara peered dubiously at the buzzer, which Carl held. "N-no thanks. I'll, um, I'll try one f-for real."
"You sure?" Willow asked. "It's harder than it looks."
The blonde retrieved the cards and sat Indian-style. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. When she lifted her lids, she found herself staring into Willow's intent, fern-green gaze. "I'm ready," she breathed.
"Go!" Buffy cried, flipping the timer.
Tara casually drew a card. "If you do scary feats that nobody else would try, such as skydiving or jumping lines of cars, you are a-" she trailed off into silence.
"An extreme athlete?" Eddie guessed.
"A daredevil," Willow answered.
Tara nodded at the redhead, and pulled out a second card. "When two things come to pass, but one didn't cause the other, it just seems that way, the second thing is merely a-"
Willow hazarded a guess. "Coincidence?"
A soft smile crept to Tara's lips as she drew another card. "Sometimes ink is like this, and nobody can read it until you put it under certain light."
"Invisible ink," Willow stated. Eddie could only look back and forth between his own teammates.
"Does that count?" Tara asked Carl, who was sitting quietly behind her with the buzzer, looking impressed. He nodded, so she continued with another card. "My works at the diner have this wooden rectangle around them."
"Paintings," Willow said, before the blonde had finished.
"Frames," Eddie filled in.
Tara nodded, and Buffy and Andrew exchanged disgusted looks, seeing their dreams of a resounding victory shattered in the very first round. The waitress reached back into the box of cards. "The guy at the Alamo had one of these on his head."
"A coonskin cap!" Willow blurted out.
"Yes," Tara grinned.
"Are you freakin' kidding me?!" Buffy complained, willing the sand in the timer to fall faster.
Tara pulled out a sixth card, opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated. She found the deep pools of Willow's eyes, which were filled with admiration, and held her gaze for several seconds, wordlessly. They were lost, and the other players looked on anxiously as the timer neared its last seconds.
"Neither of us have these in," Tara said quietly.
"Contact lenses," Willow answered without hesitation.
"Time," Buffy said. "There's no way that was right." She snatched the card out of Tara's hand. "OH MY GOD. You've got to be kidding."
"Well, that just about sums up that contest," Carl said, adding the last round's count and tallying the results. "The final score is...Team Awesome: thirty-six, and Team Ladies Including Eddie: an astronomically high number that doesn't bear repeating. Thanks for the severe drubbing, ladies." He tossed the pad aside and swept all the cards into a neat pile, making sure they were all rotated property before returning them to the box.
"Yeah, really," Buffy remarked, sarcastically. "Will, I never realized you had psychic powers. That would have been helpful in high school, you know."
Willow smirked and offered a high-five to Tara. Their hands met and dropped together, fingers barely curling around the sides before separating. "You were amazing, Tara. I can't believe you've never played before."
"Yeah, I smell a ringer," Andrew teased.
Tara shrugged. "Willow's just a good guesser," she replied, a crooked half-smile lifting one side of her mouth.
"Hey, what about me?" Eddie asked, chuckling. "I got like...three, maybe four points."
"So, you all want to play something else?" Andrew asked. "We've got Balderdash, Apples to Apples-" He was cut off by Buffy's cell phone, which began playing the opening bars of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Bad Moon Rising.' The girl tugged the phone out of her pocket and examined the incoming call's number questioningly.
Tara straightened her legs and peeked over Buffy's shoulder. "Is that-oh, I've got to go. I'm sorry." She jumped to her feet and gathered up her shopping bags, making a hasty retreat toward the door.
"Hey, wait!" Willow called, standing. "I'll walk with you."
Tara paused at the doorway. "I really have to run-literally," she insisted.
"We'll try and keep up," Buffy grinned, offering to join the entourage.
"Yeah," Willow agreed. "It's not a good idea to walk alone at night."
"I'll be fine," Tara asserted forcefully, then added, more gently, "I promise. Thanks for the offer. And thanks, everyone; it was r-really nice to meet you all. Uh, bye!" She eased backward out the door, closing it behind herself, and the others could hear her rapid footsteps as she dashed down the hallway.
Willow had been startled by the blonde's testy remark. "What-did I say something wrong?" she wondered aloud.
"I think Tara's wired a little strangely," Buffy said, shrugging it off.
Andrew suggested, "I think her dad's kind of a weirdo, too."
Willow looked concerned. "What do you mean, a weirdo?"
"Well, the first few days Tara started working at the diner, he'd stop by randomly, like he was keeping tabs on her or something. I haven't seen him in a couple days. I mean, he seems pleasant enough, but I get the feeling, both from talking with Tara and the way she acts in general, that her dad's one of those, you know, hyper-controlling fellows. Faith says she's 'got the signs,' whatever that is supposed to mean, and I think Faith's a really good judge of character."
Willow frowned, looking back at the door, hoping that her new friend would change her mind and return to the room to ask for an escort.
"So...Balderdash?" Andrew asked.
Tara took a deep, steadying breath and steeled herself, then reached for the apartment door's handle. It was dark beyond the entryway, and that was probably a good sign; she'd half expected her father to be waiting up for her in the common room. She slipped off her shoes and inched into the apartment, closing the door as silently as possible. The sofa was empty save for the television's remote control, which was balanced upon one of the arms, and a program listing that had been torn from the newspaper. Tara crept toward the kitchen, jumping when the apartment's heat kicked in. Guided by the microwave clock's bright display, she searched the room. From the empty tins that had been tossed into the garbage bin, she surmised that her family had eaten a simple meal of hotdogs and beans. She was hungry, now, but didn't want to chance waking anybody up by turning on the lights or making too much noise.
She padded softly down the hallway, reassured by the even waves of her father's heavy breathing as he slept. The door to her bedroom was slightly ajar, and she eased it open, grateful that the hinges didn't squeak and that the bottom cleared the carpet by a good half inch. The blinds were drawn, but enough light squeezed through the seams to see by. Tara could see her brother's form under the covers of his bed, and she carefully navigated around a desk chair to the foot of her own bed.
"Tare?" Donny whispered.
Tara sat gingerly on her bed. "Hey, Donny. Thanks for calling; is-is Papa angry?" She kept the quaver from her own voice.
"I don't think so," her brother replied. "I told him you had to cover a shift at work, to make up for the one you missed while sick."
"Oh." A wave of relief washed through the girl, but it was followed by one of unease; her brother had lied to her father on her behalf. It wasn't right that he should have to do that. Tara was keenly aware of the fact that she would be asking him to do so again for the party Faith had invited her to, three days hence. "That was-thanks," she sighed. "I-I wish I wasn't asking you to-"
"It's okay," Donny interrupted. "I get it. You deserve to have a little fun every now and then, you know? I mean, you work harder than pretty much everyone I know."
Tara tiptoed to her brother's bed and pulled the younger boy into a tight hug. "I love you, you know," she confessed, on the verge of tears.
Donny squirmed. "Yeah, yeah," he dismissed, chuckling. "Love you, too. Now go to bed before you suffocate me."