Return to Constants Chapter Eleven


Author: Jasmydae
Rating: Intended PG-13, but might end up R
Feedback: I'd love any and all; I'm a new writer, so any help you can offer would be appreciated. Please leave feedback on the Constants thread on the Kitten Board.
Disclaimer: Joss / ME / etc. owns these characters. This story is just for fun and not for profit.

"Hullo?" a low, harsh voice asked.

"Hi, Mr. Harris. Is Xander there?" Willow spoke into the phone, forcing a cheerful tone into a greeting for a man she truly disliked. Over the many years she had been friends with Xander, his father had never been anything but surly, crass, and neglectful. The man seemed to care more for drinking beer and watching television than he did for his own child. Willow had always been uncomfortable visiting Xander's house; although it was similar to her own in form, she believed it had a decidedly unwelcome atmosphere. Maybe it was due to the constant, couch-bound presence of his father, who had sustained a back injury at his packaging plant, and was living on worker's compensation benefits and his wife's wages. Perhaps it was the boy's mother, Jessica, whose toothpaste smile never quite reached her eyes, and whose cheerful hostess act, according to her son, drowned at the bottom of a glass of wine the moment any company departed. Whatever Willow's discomfort with the home, however, it was eclipsed by Xander's, and therefore it had never been an issue between them. They had spent a majority of their time at Willow's, where they often had the entire house to themselves, since both of her parents worked late hours.

"Hey. I got it, Pop." Xander's voice was followed by the clattering sound of his father hanging up, and suddenly the line was quiet, its background noise-a television show involving helicopters and machine guns, from what Willow could identify-vanishing along with Mr. Harris.

"Xander?" Willow asked, believing for a moment that she'd been disconnected.

"Willster! Hi. How's it going? Long time, no see. How's the college life treating you?" Xander sounded as enthusiastic as a puppy.

"It's only been five days, you know."

"Will, believe me when I tell you this: five days at home without my two favorite girls feels like a lifetime. I don't know how I'm going to make it another week, let alone all the way to the holidays."

"We're less than an hour away," Willow reminded her oldest friend. "We'll definitely see each other before the holidays. But speaking of the holidays, what are the plans, anyway? I mean, you know my family: Thanksgiving isn't considered a tradition worth celebrating, what with the wanton slaughter, spreading of disease, pillaging of villages, and plundering of graves. Uh, and, you know, Christmas isn't exactly up our alley, either."

"Have you talked to Buffy about it? I mean, there's always that big to-do at Chez Summers on Thanksgiving, to which we have standing invites," Xander pointed out. "I know you're not big with the sacrilege of Native American culture, but on the other hand: really tasty food and excellent company. As far as Christmas...well, you know I'd jump at any chance to see you, plus we can't let a little thing like college get in the way of our Secular Christmas tradition, now can we?"

Willow smiled at the reference. "I hope Mom didn't throw out my sleeping bag." When she was twelve years old, Willow had walked out to the mailbox at the end of her short driveway one Christmas Eve-her parents never remembered to check the post, and it would often sit in the box for days before anyone discovered it. While returning to the house she had noticed Xander unrolling a sleeping bag on the grass two lawns over. She had trotted over to say hello, recognizing immediately that the boy was sorely lacking the cheery Christmas spirit she expected. It hadn't taken long to determine why: the muffled voices of his squabbling family members inside the house had been detectable from the yard. Seeing her usually upbeat friend so down had upset Willow, so, not having holiday obligations of her own, she had taken it upon herself to lighten the boy's mood. Ultimately, they had camped out at Willow's, setting up her father's old tent in the yard, eating S'mores-her parents either didn't realize or didn't care that the children had swiped the propane torch from the basement-making up silly stories, and playing Go Fish by flashlight. Every Christmas since, they had scheduled the campout, and while the activities had changed over the years, it had always remained a night that they both looked forward to.

"So have you heard about my stellar initiation into the work force?" Xander asked.

"Uh huh. Buffy's mom mentioned that you were working at a video store?"

"Right. It's not the best of jobs, but it's local, and until I can afford a car-and believe me, I'm pinching pennies to clear that obstacle as quickly as possible-it's the best I'm going to do. At least it's something I can be really good at. I mean, movies?"

Willow giggled. "Yeah, I can see that. Your customers must be really surprised when they ask for a scary movie and you reel off a list of your top fifty, sorted descending by number of reanimated corpses."

"So that's me," Xander summed up. "How about you? College, eh? Is it everything you dreamed it would be? Is it more 'PCU' or 'Real Genius?' How's the Loch Ness Roommate?"

"It's going really well, for the most part. I mean, the classes seem pretty neat, so far. Buffy and I have a class together that's really interesting, although we can't yet tell whether the professor is an out-of-touch genius or a homicidal sociopath; I've heard rumors of both. I've met a few people on campus, including some of the people in my dorm, and they've been friendly. And Cordelia, my roommate, yeah, she's not around a whole lot, and I was scared at first because of the whole sorority thing, and...well, okay, so this is really stereotypical and awful of me to say, but...she kind of looks like she'd be, you know, sort of snobby? But it turns out she's actually nice, and she and Buffy have been hanging out a lot."

Xander, who had long ago learned the art of communicating with the babbling redhead, jumped in when she paused for breath. "And of course, there's Oz, right?"

There was a pause. "Right," Willow said. "There's Oz. He says his band is doing well. They had auditions for a new lead singer, you know, with Devon going to California and all? So I guess they got this girl who Oz says 'brings the band to a whole new level,' but I haven't met her yet. They haven't done any shows, 'cause they're practicing so many hours a day. I'll get to hear them this weekend, though; they're playing at a party I'm going to."

"A party? You're braving a college party after your first week on campus? Who are you, and what have you done with my Willow?"

Willow grimaced. "Believe me, I'm scared to death. If I didn't know Oz and Buffy would both be there, holding my hand...Really, the only reason I can even talk about it without breaking into a cold sweat is because my brain is in complete Denial Mode, I think."

She could hear Xander chuckling at the other end of the line. "That sounds more like the Willow I know. Man, what I'd do to have a car, so I could come visit all the time-or, for that matter, my own apartment. And while I'm at it, I'd like a fifty-five inch plasma HDTV and a luxury yacht," he added wistfully.

"You know, the campus is having their annual Family Weekend event, the first weekend of October. It sounds really entertaining; they have a big ol' barbecue, a bunch of performances, and a silent auction-'cause I guess parents aren't paying enough money to the University already. Oh, and they open up the recreation center, where there's a climbing wall, and they set up some kind of adventure course, plus there are all sorts of games that weekend, if you're into the sports thing."

"Will, I love you, and go you for getting involved and being excited, but this isn't exactly helping my 'stranded at my parents' house' blues."

"No, you doofus," Willow rolled her eyes, a habit she sometimes couldn't avoid with her friend, despite the fact that he couldn't see her. "Buffy's mom and Dawnie are driving down that weekend; you could come with them."

"Oh." A momentary silence marked Xander's consideration. "Yeah, maybe I could trade shifts with somebody and hitch a ride. Barbecue, you say?" Willow could practically hear the boy drooling on the receiver. "This is tempting."

Willow sighed. "And there will be thousands of college girls," she pointed out.

"You present a compelling argument, Will. I'm sold."

Taking a deep breath, Willow prepared herself for a drastic shift in conversation. "So actually, Xander, I did kind of have something I wanted to ask you, but it's not an easy topic to broach."

"Oh, okay," the boy replied, his voice automatically dropping into hushed, conspiratorial tones in the way that only a true confidante's can. "You're off to a good start," he urged.

Willow ran the question through her mind a hundred times in the span of a second, ultimately deciding on the simplest wording. "Do you think Oz and I are a good couple?"

"...Wow," Xander said. "Uh, I mean, I guess this is one of those 'tell me how you really feel' questions, right? I like Oz. He's a pleasant guy, seems to have a lot of respect for everybody, and sticks up for his friends. I've got to admit, I was surprised when he asked you out-not that you're not a catch, of course," he hastily added, "but just that the two of you have such drastically different personalities. I mean, I think you've spoken more words in this phone call than Oz has said in his entire life." Xander paused, and Willow was unsure whether he was waiting for her to respond.

"Uh huh?"

"Right, uh, so then the whole thing with his classes, and being held back senior year; you really stepped it up for him, and I never got the feeling that he was, you know, grateful, or really appreciated what you'd done for him. But then, it's always been hard for me to read Oz. He doesn't exactly show his feeling on the surface, you know?"

"Yeah...I know what you mean," Willow agreed.

"I guess I always felt like..." Xander picked his words carefully. "I feel like you kind of idolized him, a bit. Because he was this cool, silent, stoic guy who showed you some affection, and you were so eager for it that you never, uh-never saw that he didn't treat you all that well, really."

Willow frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I just mean that you've always put a whole lot more into your relationship than he has, but you're so happy for what he does do that you don't recognize how much he doesn't. I mean, I'm no relationship expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I do feel like a guy should be, I don't know, excited? About being with his girlfriend. I know you've got a tendency to sell yourself short, and be happy with whatever you get, but you shouldn't; you're a truly amazing girl, Will, and you deserve a guy who realizes you're something to be really thrilled and passionate about. Now, how's that for sappy?"

"Xander," Willow sniffled, nearly on the verge of tears, "that's-that's just about the sweetest thing I've ever heard."

"Well, you know," the boy replied, "that's what I'm here for. I mean, I'm here for my total lack of academic success and my dire financial straits, but you get the idea. I've got to inquire out of curiosity, though...why are you asking me about Oz?"

"Yeah, I guess that's the question, isn't it?" Willow winced. "See, the thing is, I kind of...I don't know, I get the feeling we're not doing so well. And I know I should talk to Oz about it, but he's never around, and doesn't seem at all concerned. Part of me thinks that it's just my insecurities taking over, you know: new location, all this freedom, knowing how much his college friends influenced him while we were still in high school. But, what if it's more than that, Xander? What if he's really not interested, anymore? What if we can't reconcile the feelings from when we first met?"

"Will, all relationships lose the-I'm tempted to say 'new car smell,' but that sounds wrong. But you know what I mean, at first they're new and shiny, right? I guess, though, when that wears off, there's got to be something left over that holds the good ones together. So I present you with a very important question: are you happy? With Oz, I mean."

The redhead released a slow breath. "I think so, yes. When we're together, anyway. That's the thing: when we hang out together, I feel like I must be seeing things that aren't there, the rest of the time."

"Well then, that's what matters, right?"

"But we're not always together. We're hardly ever together. I know, I know: it's been a week, and we're all adjusting to the college thing, but I feel almost like he's being avoidant. Plus, he stood me up last weekend!" Willow's voice took on an indignant tone. "I told myself it wasn't something to get worked up about, but darn it, it made me angry! The whole point was that he was supposed to take time off from the band, which he's been putting twenty-five hours a day into, to celebrate being away at college together, and he ends up a no-show. And where was he? That's right: with the band."

Xander was quiet a moment, before commenting, "I wish my phone had a 'give hugs' button, but I don't see one, anywhere."

Willow, her energy spent on the last burst of ranting, sank down into her swivel chair. "I don't know what I should do..."

Clear blue eyes flicked open and stared up at an inoperative dome light, which protruded from the gentle curve on the underside of the car's roof. The young girl blinked away her sleep and brought a hand to her mouth for what she thought was going to be a mighty yawn, although it ended up being hardly more than a squeak. She was nestled in a makeshift bed, which had been created by piling pillows and blankets over a pair of plywood squares that fit snugly across the span between the front and back seats, leaving a small gap between the boards and the floor. Hidden in this space was a gift for the girl: a bright yellow Funshine Bear plush doll. She knew it was there because she had only been pretending to sleep when her father had carried her out to the car to begin their trip in the wee hours of the morning, and had spied her mother sneaking it underneath the slats before she was lowered into the bedding.

The car, a rusty silver CitroŽn DS wagon, was humming north along I-87 just outside of Sloatsburg, New York. While the girl eased herself out of slumber in the back seat, her parents sat up front-her mother napping, her father driving and watching the scenery whiz by on either side of the vehicle. Their destination was New Paltz, a quiet rural community at the foot of the Shawangunk Mountain escarpment in the heart of the Hudson Valley. Every summer since their daughter was old enough to enjoy the experience, they would endure the five-hour drive to spend a long weekend on the Mohonk Preserve. There, they would rent a room in the hotel, a massive Victorian castle; take leisurely horse-drawn carriage rides along the ridge overlooking the cerulean lake; get lost in the sprawling hedge-maze; and bask in the breathtaking, panoramic beauty of the mountains. When they grew weary of gardens and paddleboats, and yearned instead for something more adventurous, they would tackle the Labyrinth, a three quarters of a mile long rock scramble-complete with ladders, tunnels, and rope bridges-that curled around the base of the cliff face and squeezed up through a rock chimney onto the top of the bluff. From the peak, they would have an unobstructed view of nature in its full splendor for miles in every direction.

"How much longer?" the blonde child yawned from the back of the car, while stretching her arms as wide as the seats would allow. She rubbed her eyes and climbed onto the seat so she could look out the window, but quickly looked away when the rushing scenery addled her recently woken brain and caused her vision to spin.

Her father checked the clock on the dashboard. "One and a half Muppet Shows," he announced.

"Oh, good," his wife remarked, stirring from her own rest. "I can't wait to get there. It'll be nice to be able to stretch my legs." She reached over and patted the man's thigh, and his hand found hers, their fingers linking together. The couple shared a quiet smile, which went unnoticed by their daughter, who had by now figured out that peering out the back windshield didn't make her carsick.

"Daddy, there's a limousine coming fast," she stated.

The man sneaked a peek at the rear view mirror, but saw only an empty road. He smiled at his daughter's imagination. "Oh? It must be for something important," he said, playing along. "Who is riding in it?"

"It's full of dead people," the girl replied, as simply as if being asked her name. "Their skin is melted off."

The man nearly choked on a cough as his daughter's words sank in. His wife gasped and spun around to face the girl in the back seat. "Honey! Why would you make up something like that?" she demanded. The woman's face fell. "Oh..."

A long, dark funeral coach pulled up silently along side the family's car. A vinyl roof stretched between landau bars covered blind rear quarters, and jet-black curtains hung behind the front windows, obscuring the vehicle's inhabitants. The man found it disconcerting that the hearse matched his own speed, and he unconsciously slowed, then pressed harder on the accelerator when the other car did the same. A crack appeared at the top of the passenger-side window, and a sickly chartreuse smoke wafted out. The man was horrified to realize that despite the speed-they were creeping up on eighty miles per hour-the fog was drifting vertically, as though immune to the currents of air he could hear whistling past the CitroŽn's antenna and blasting the windshield.

Spine-chilling dread wrapped itself around the man's veins. The coach's window was open, now, its sable curtains billowing as the eerie fog continued to pour out. The rancid odor of charred and decomposing flesh filled his nostrils, and he twisted a dial on the dashboard to stop the circulation of air. With panic overtaking reason, the man watched the speedometer over his knuckles, clenched and white on the steering wheel-eighty-five miles per hour, ninety, ninety-five. The car shook unsteadily whenever the wind changed, and the engine whined at the extra effort he was demanding. He hardly felt his wife's nails digging into his upper arm as she tensed in the seat beside him.

"Daddy, I'm scared..."

A misshapen profile appeared through the haze, filling first the hearse's window, then expanding in an instant to fill his own.

Rupert Giles woke up screaming.

A hot, cleansing shower, a refreshing cup of English Breakfast tea, and a forty-minute drive later, Professor Giles strode into Marie Mount Hall. He carried his briefcase in one hand, and a bag containing a half-eaten bagel in the other. Under one arm, he clutched a folded newspaper. The path to his office took him by the classroom, where a bolt of fiery red hair caught his attention through the doorway.

"Good heavens, you're here awfully early, aren't you?" he inquired, stepping into the room.

Willow snapped out of her reverie and focused on the gentleman. "Oh! Uh, yeah, sorry. Normally this is my lunch break, but I wasn't much with the hunger, today, so I figured I'd sit here for a while before class. I hope that's okay."

Mr. Giles nodded once-a crisp, concise motion. "Of course. The room looks a bit different without all the students, doesn't it?" The girl smiled weakly in agreement. "It's Willow, isn't it?"

"That's right," she replied, "Willow Rosenberg."

"Ah, yes. How are you finding the class?" The professor advanced to the front of the room and deposited his things on the desk, then faced the girl.

"Oh, it's terrific!" she gushed. "I thought it sounded really interesting when I read the description in the course catalog, but I had no idea. I'm really looking forward to the section on Chinese mythology-you know, from the Tang Dynasty?"

Mr. Giles arched his eyebrows, clearly impressed. "Well! It's always a pleasant surprise to have students who are enthusiastic about the material. Sadly, in recent semesters I've found this course has become a gathering ground for students who are only looking to fulfill core requirements."

"Mm," Willow agreed, Buffy springing immediately to mind. "That's unfortunate."

The professor hesitated a moment, before opening his mouth to speak. "Say...while I've got you here alone, there's something important I must bring up." His tone indicated a touchy subject.

"Uh oh. Did I do something bad? I did, didn't I? I let Buffy copy some of my notes, and I shouldn't have! I wasn't supposed to-"

Mr. Giles silenced her with a wave of his hand. "No, no, you didn't do anything wrong," he assured the girl. "I'm afraid I may have. You see, on Monday afternoon, a young woman came to me and asked whether I might be able to locate your contact information for her-to provide her with an address or a phone number where you might be reached. Please know that it is strictly against the University's policy to divulge this information; I do not have direct access to it myself, in fact, and had to call in a favor to a friend in the admissions office. However, the girl seemed genuinely concerned, and I did later pass along your phone number. I realized shortly thereafter how dangerous my actions had been, and I could not in good conscience keep it from you. I hope nothing bad came of it; if you intend to file a complaint, I would understand completely."

Willow had listened slack-jawed to the professor's confession up until this point, when she hastily jumped in, "Oh, no-that's okay. It was good. Great, even! But I don't understand; how did Tara know to ask you? I mean, she doesn't even attend the University, so she couldn't possibly have known that I was in your class, could she?"

"No, I don't believe she did," Mr. Giles replied thoughtfully, shaking his head. "That seems to be a coincidence, albeit a strange one, at that. We first met just a few days ago at the art gallery, in fact. She seems to be a true admirer," he added wistfully.

"I can imagine," Willow agreed. "I've seen two of her paintings. They're amazing!"

The professor smiled. "Really? You two are old friends then?"

"Heh, no, we actually just met last week, too."

"Ah. She had mentioned to me that she had not painted in quite some time."

Willow caught on. "Oh, no, that's right. These weren't new; I'm pretty sure she brought them from home. I mean, from her last home, a few hours east of here, somewhere. They're up on the wall at Plato's Diner, if you ever eat there."

This piqued the man's interest. "You don't say? That's quite fascinating. I might have to stop by for a bite, some day."

"So how was it?" Faith pried. The evening rush had died down, and for the first time in several hours, she wasn't in the process of preparing a meal.

Tara, who had stepped into the kitchen for a drink of water, replied, "The trip? It was really nice. The shop was perfect! Thanks so much for the recommendation. Oh, hey, I got you something." The waitress moved to the coat closet that was tucked into the narrow entryway at the back of the restaurant and dug through her knapsack.

"For me? You're serious?" Faith asked incredulously.

"It was very you," Tara shrugged. "I couldn't resist." She produced a slender box, gift-wrapped in light pastels, and handed it to her friend. Faith tore the paper asunder and examined the present: an Indonesian keris dagger with a cranked bone handle and a tapered obsidian blade. She lifted the gift delicately from its box.

"Whoa, T, really? That's totally badassed!" She tested the blade's edge on the pad of her thumb. "Could use some sharpening, but still, that's awesome."

Tara blinked. "Faith, it's a letter opener."

"Hm?" Faith inspected it again, more closely this time. "Oh. Yeah, of course. I know that. Just jokin', you know? Well, I can feel really good about stabbing my bills, now, right?" She paused for thought. "Guess I'd better start writing some people, huh?"

"I'll admit I, uh, bought it more for form than for function," Tara confessed.

"Naw, it's really cool," Faith insisted. "Thanks, T. Best present I've gotten all day," she joked.

Tara smiled and grabbed a plastic cup from the windowsill, where she'd left it earlier in the day. She ran water in the sink, testing it every few seconds until it was cold.

"Now, back to this shopping trip," Faith began, a mischievous grin stretching her lips.

"Mm?" Tara responded through a mouthful of water.

"You like her?"

It was all Tara could do not to spew her drink across the kitchen counter. She swallowed the gulp painfully, and stared at her friend, sputtering. "W-what? Who? You m-mean Willow?"

"That blonde-Buffy." Faith's brow furled. "Wait, Willow?"

"I like them b-both, of course."

"You like them?" Faith stressed.

Tara's cheeks were beet-red as she struggled through her response. "Yeah, I-wait, no-I d-don't like any-hold on, why would I like-do you think-wait, why did you think Buffy?" The flustered waitress finally managed a complete thought.

Faith smirked at the blonde's agitated state. "Oh, I don't know. You know what they say: 'opposites attract.'"

"They also s-say, 'birds of a feather flock together,'" Tara countered.

Faith hadn't considered this. "Huh. Yeah, they do."

"I'm not so sure that they know what they're talking about."

"So you like Willow, then."

Tara threw her hands up into the air. "Faith! Willow and Buffy are both really nice, and I'm excited about making new friends, okay?"

"Okay, okay. That's cool," Faith acquiesced.

"And even if I did like her-either of them," the waitress continued, "there's n-nothing wrong with that! And-and anyway, this is not an appropriate conversation for coworkers to have."

Faith winced. "Wow. Okay, really, sorry I brought it up," she muttered. Dour-faced, she stomped over to the closet and fished a packet of cigarettes from her jacket pocket.

"Wait, Faith," Tara called, but was cut off by the door slamming shut behind the chef, as she exited to the parking lot. The blonde balled her fists and took a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling as though the answers to her social ineptitude were scrawled on the tiles above. Releasing a pent-up sigh, she followed the other girl outside.

"Faith, I d-didn't mean that to sound so-so businesslike," she admitted. "You're not just a coworker; you're my friend. I'm sorry."

The brunette took a long drag of her cigarette. She didn't look at Tara, but instead stared out across the half-empty lot. "It's okay. I know I push buttons; it's kind of my thing. I'm not the best at knowing when to quit." She took another puff and leaned back against the building. "That's probably why I've got so many good friends," she remarked bitterly.

Tara moved next to the girl, easing her body back against the wall, as well. They looked up at the starless, copper tinged sky. "It's pretty," the waitress said in a hushed tone.

Faith shrugged. "It's light pollution," she grunted. "You get used to it."

The girls stood in silence for a few minutes while Faith worked her cigarette down to a stub. Finally, Tara summoned up the courage for her confession. She closed her eyes and rested her head back against the diner's exterior. "I-I really like her a lot," she whispered. "Willow, I mean."

Faith looked down at her feet, then at her smoke, then finally at Tara, who was also doing her best to avoid eye contact. "Yeah?"

Color crept back into Tara's face. "It's silly," she admitted, "I just met her the other day. We've hung out only once. She-she has a b-boyfriend. I don't even think-I mean, we hardly know a thing about each other." The blonde kicked at a pebble, and it skittered under a Sedan. "But I think we-I think we kind of click."

Richard's head suddenly popped out through the doorway. "Hey, if there's clicking going on, do you think you two could maybe do it inside? It's getting busy in here."

"Oh! S-sorry," Tara started, rubbing her hands on her apron. Their boss disappeared back into the building, and Tara gave Faith one last reassuring look before following the man inside. Faith nodded thoughtfully and dropped the remnants of her cigarette to the pavement, extinguishing it with the heel of her boot.

"And that," Willow said to herself, "takes care of that." She set her pen down on her desk with a satisfied smile and neatened the three sheets of paper that comprised her physics homework. She'd had little trouble with the problems, and was certain she would receive perfect marks for the assignment. Willow liked that about physics: every question had a definite answer that could be deduced, and whenever she arrived at it, she could plug it back into the equation to verify its accuracy. Plus, she thought the diagrams looked kind of neat. She munched on a bag of pretzels she had bought from a vending machine on the ground floor lounge as she gave her homework one last look, then tucked the sheets securely into the inside pocket of her notebook. Assuring herself that she had applied her academic prowess to its full extent, Willow allowed herself to relax and slip out of Study Mode.

A bag bearing a picture of a sun and moon rendered in bold, primary colors lay on the floor beside the desk-her purchases from the Magic Box, which she had not yet sorted through. She took it and sat on her bed, using the surface to arrange the items as she removed them from the bag: a miniature butterfly pendant fashioned from a rainbow jasper gemstone for Joyce, a beautiful boxwood carving of a hyena for Xander-the animal represented a long-running inside joke between the two old friends-and, for Dawn, a leather-wrapped dreamcatcher with metal beads and hackle feathers dangling underneath. Finally, she withdrew the last item: a deck of cards labeled 'Herbal Tarot.' While the girls were shopping, Willow had been impressed by Tara's knowledge of the many herbs that were available in the store; the blonde's later confession that she had once done Tarot readings was enough to set Willow's mental gears whirling. When she saw the elegantly illustrated cards, each one featuring an herb and identifying its healing properties as well as the standard Tarot symbols, she knew it would make the perfect gift for her new friend. She had asked Buffy to distract the girl for a minute while she paid for the item, and Anya, the cashier, had been kindly willing to hold the deck at the counter and slip it into her bag as they were ringing up their purchases.

'She'll definitely like it,' Willow told herself for the hundredth time since leaving the store. 'But, why did I buy her a present? I didn't buy Buffy anything, and she's my friend, too.' The need to justify her decision was pulling strongly on her. 'She did recommend the store, so it could be a gift of thanks. Although, that's what the invitation was supposed to be. Maybe I should wait until Christmas? Maybe we'll be better friends by then, and it will make more sense. Then again, I'm not so much with the giving of Christmas presents.' Willow frowned at the box of cards, unsure of how it had caused such mixed feelings within her. 'You're being silly, Rosenberg. It's just a gift. She's a new friend, and you're being nice. People sometimes go out of their way for new friends. I mean, Tara asked Mr. Giles to break school policy so that she could get my telephone number...' She reflected upon that last thought. 'Well, okay, maybe that's not the best example, but it was above and beyond typical effort levels for friendship, right? And that's what you're doing, right? Right.'

Although she wasn't happy with that answer, it was the best she was going to do for the moment.

Continue to Constants Chapter Thirteen

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