"It was a car accident!" Willow exclaimed, the moment she heard Buffy enter the room.
The blonde, who had become familiar over the years with her friend's seemingly random outbursts, took this in stride. "Will, if you keep using that as your greeting, people are going to start questioning your sanity." She walked up behind Willow and waved a quick hello to Cordelia, who was examining herself in the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door.
"Mr. Giles," Willow clarified, without once looking away from the computer. "It was a car accident, three years ago. That's how he lost his family." She flicked her scroll button a few times, and paragraphs flew up the screen.
Buffy had always marveled at her best friend's ability to process information at six times the speed of nerd. She inched closer to the computer, peering at the screen whenever it ceased its motion. The website, loaded into a window in the center of the screen, was unfamiliar and covered with photographs, scanned forms, and diagrams. Half obscured in the background, she saw a series of smaller windows scrolling text and numbers at an alarming rate. "Uh, do I even want to know what you're doing?"
"Oh...they were hit by a drunk driver," Willow read on, wisely leaving the question unanswered, "It says here he had fallen asleep at the wheel, and veered into Professor Giles' lane. It forced his car off the road."
"Awful Maryland drivers strike again," Buffy joked hesitantly, uncertain how best to react to her friend's intent focus on the topic.
The redhead looked at her for the first time since she'd entered the room, and frowned. "It wasn't in Maryland," she corrected, "It was in New York." She returned her attention to the screen and clicked a button, causing a new window to pop up, this one containing a scanned document with nearly illegible handwriting scribbled all over it. "Near some place called Tuxedo Park. Huh, that's a weird name. Oh..." Her hand stilled on the mouse. "He had a daughter in the car. She was seven."
"Who's Mr. Giles?" Cordelia asked. She had two dresses, one in each hand, and was alternating between them, holding each up against her front while she posed before the mirror.
"He's our Mythology professor," Willow explained. "Buffy's and mine. Oh, Buffy, I didn't tell you: I talked with him before class on Wednesday, just for a few minutes. He knows Tara; can you believe that?"
"What? How? From the diner?"
"I guess he ran into her at the gallery. The one in the art building, I mean."
"Really? Huh. It's a small world, I guess," Buffy shrugged.
"So, not to butt into the weirdness that is looking up your professors on the Internet, but are you two ready?" Cordelia inquired while digging through the closet for a pair of heels she remembered burying earlier. "Or am I going to end up waiting for you? 'Cause if so, chop chop, hm?"
"I'm all set," Buffy assured her.
"Yeah, me, too," Willow agreed.
Cordelia glanced at Willow's reflection in the mirror, and her eyebrows rose high on her forehead. "Are you serious? You're wearing that?" she asked.
"Uh huh," the redhead nodded.
Her roommate turned around slowly, and glanced at Buffy. The two shared a look and nodded, while Willow looked down uncertainly at her own outfit-a pair of drab, ocher corduroy trousers and a lightweight, lavender top. When she looked up again, a mischievous, predatory gleam sparkled in the eyes of the other girls. "What?" she asked nervously.
"And you're sure your cell phone is on?" Tara asked for the third time since they'd left the diner.
"For crying out loud, T." Faith rolled her eyes at her friend. "Yes. It's on. Still. Your brother can reach you if he lights the apartment on fire, or accidentally drops your goldfish into the trash compactor, or gets sick from eating an entire package of Fig Newtons in one sitting, or whatever the heck else little brothers get up to when they're left home alone. It'll be fine. Relax."
The two girls walked side by side along the paved path that ran between Route One and its many storefronts. Faith hadn't asked pressed with any questions when Tara had asked if she could shower at Faith's apartment, instead of stopping by her own. "We don't even have any goldfish," Tara pointed out.
"Well, see, then? No problems at all," Faith flashed an extra-wide, toothy grin. "Oh, hey, you'll probably want this." She slipped a lacquered, plastic card into the blonde's hand.
The waitress examined the card. It was a student ID bearing a picture of a girl whose face bore a striking similarity to Tara's, although her name and date of birth did not match. "Who is it?" Tara asked, confused.
"What? Uh, Faith, that's not me."
The brunette faked surprise. "Really? Let me see." She took the card back from Tara and inspected the image closely, looking back and forth several times between it and Tara's face. "Well, it sure looks like you to me. Don't you think so, Miss, uh-" She checked the card one more time. "Miss Cassandra Mitchell?"
"Faith!" Tara gasped. "I can't use a fake ID to g-get into a party. That would be-I mean, I don't even w-want to drink," she insisted.
"Oh, come on, Cassie," Faith grinned. "Live a little. You can't be walking around without one of those stupid stamps, right?"
Tara frowned. "Hey, I'm going to the party, right? I don't want to get into trouble; I'd be fine without a stamp." She paused, thinking. "What's the point of a stamp, anyway? Couldn't somebody without one just get alcohol from somebody with one?"
Faith shrugged. "I didn't make the rules. I guess it's the fraternity's loose interpretation of responsibility. Look, just flash the ID for my sake, will you? At least yours looks like you; mine, not so much. I don't even know if they'll buy it, and it'll seem even fishier if we show up together and you don't have one.
"Fine," Tara grumbled. "Wait, I thought you told me you were twenty-one."
"Well, yeah, basically," Faith said. "You know, uh, in another...sixteen months."
"No way," Willow stated adamantly, staring at herself in the mirror with wide eyes and shaking her head from side to side. "Absolutely no way."
On either side of her, Buffy and Cordelia admired their handiwork. "It's amazing what effect a serious defrumping can have on a person," Cordelia remarked. Buffy just stared, slack-jawed, and nodded dumbly, unable to believe that the stunning creature in the ruddy long-sleeved top and black miniskirt was her bashful friend. Cordelia leaned over and carefully dabbed a spot of mascara off of Willow's cheek with a damp cotton swab. "My work here is done," she proclaimed proudly.
Willow continued to fidget in front of the mirror, wringing her hands together nervously. She tugged weakly at the skirt's fabric, as though she could extend it by her will alone, and played with the tie at the back of her choker. "I-I don't know about this," she said timidly. "I mean, this look isn't-well, it isn't really me."
"You look amazing," Buffy assured her. "I can't wait to see the guys drooling over you."
"I don't want drooling boys," Willow pointed out, grabbing for her coat as soon as the other girls took a step back, so that she would had something to cover herself with. "I've got Oz."
"Well, you're going to totally knock his socks off," Buffy insisted, getting her own coat. "Now come on, girls. Let's go party!"
The skies had darkened and a light drizzle had begun by the time the three girls reached Kappa Alpha house, the first building on the north end of Fraternity Row. A few strands of Willow's hair, originally pinned up by Cordelia, had come loose and were plastered to her neck. The girls huddled under the narrow stone awning that jutted out above the entryway, waiting for a small group of students to file past one of the brothers into the building.
"That's a really ugly flag," Buffy declared, indicating the banner that hung over the doorway, which was whipping around with the changing winds. The center of flag bore the symbol of the Red Cross, but it was bordered on either side by wide bands of crimson and yellow. It reminded Willow of ketchup and mustard.
"Can I see your IDs, please?" the brother asked when they stepped up to the door. Cordelia and Buffy started rifling through their purses, and Willow reached into one of her pea coat's massive pockets.
"Oh, hey! They're cool, Dougie; they're with the band." Oz appeared in the doorway behind the other man, his spiky hair matted down from several runs out to the van. He ushered the girls inside, getting the bouncer to stamp each of their hands in the process-the brother didn't seem terribly concerned with who got a stamp and who didn't-and gave Willow a gentle hug. "Hey, Will. Buffy. And, uh..." he nodded at Cordelia politely.
"Oh! Oz, this is Cordelia, my roommate. Cordelia: Oz, my boyfriend. His band is playing at the party, tonight, and-whoa, what's with the, um, tangle?" Willow completed the thought with a wave of her hand in the general direction of the staircase. Tied to the banister on either side of the stairs were nearly a hundred long, colorful strands of twine. From their anchor points on the railing, they disappeared into various doorways, some running up the stairs, and some farther down the hallway. There were even a dozen or so which ran along the floor and sneaked out the lower corner of the front door.
"They're supposed to be some kind of icebreaker," Oz explained. "You've got to untangle them, so you end up going over, under, and around everybody else at the party who's doing the same thing. The brothers have been unrolling spools all day long. I saw some of them setting it up, earlier. It's pretty involved; those strings are wrapped around everything." He reached out to take Willow's coat, but the redhead took an instinctive step back, and wrapped it even more tightly around herself.
"Uh, no, no. Still a little cold," she said hastily.
"That sounds cool," Buffy decided. "Sign me up for stringy icebreakers."
"What's with the signs?" Cordelia asked. She pointed at two cardboard squares that hung from the posts at the end of the handrails, which sported the astronomical symbols for Venus and Mars.
"Girls take strings from the left-hand side, and boys from the right," Oz instructed.
Buffy studied the signs. "What's the difference?" she asked.
The musician shrugged. "Who will be on the other end, probably."
The blonde grinned. "So, you taking one, Oz? Gonna see if Team Rained-Upon Redheads can stand up to the test of the Strings of Fate?"
"I have actually got to go help Greg unload the last of the equipment, then we'll be warming up shortly afterward," Oz admitted.
"Do you need any help unloading?" Willow offered.
"Nah, I got it." Oz shook his head with a smile. "Thanks."
"Well, okay," Buffy teased the boy good-humoredly. "Hey Will, let's all go reel in a few college hotties!"
Oz smirked at the blonde. "You ladies enjoy the party." He pulled Willow into one final hug, before heading out the door, reaching out a hand to test the water that was cascading from the awning, then hopping down the steps and dashing across the lawn to the road.
Cordelia had a self-satisfied look of amusement on her face. "I get it, now."
"Hm?" Willow asked.
"I understand why he's called Oz. It's because he's a munchkin, right?"
The redhead gasped in disbelief. "Osbourne!" she exclaimed. "His last name's Osbourne!"
Faith balanced with one foot on top of a dresser and the other on a windowsill. She stretched her arms as far as they could go, and fed her strand of twine through the shade cover. Foot by foot, she tugged it over and through, but the string seemed endless. Quickly growing impatient, she gave a wary glance at the handful of others in the room, then reached into her back pocket for a penknife and deftly severed the strand. Once free of the shade, she immediately began tying the ends back together.
"Faith," Tara chided with a wry grin as she entered the room. "That's cheating."
"Can't prove nothing," Faith chuckled.
"Have you resorted to weaponry, already? Don't shortcuts take all the fun out of it?" Tara delivered the questions with a smile, to let her friend know she was only teasing.
"Hey, this thing's supposed to be an icebreaker, right? Takin' a shortcut is fine with me; I don't need any help breakin' ice." Faith finished her knot and hopped down from the furniture.
"No," Tara giggled, "I'm sure you don't."
"Speakin' of icebreakers, you should see the bar they've got set up downstairs, T. If you want anything, just say the word, and I'll grab it for you. Or I'll walk you over there, if you wanna see it for yourself. We can put that hard-earned stamp of yours to good use."
Tara shook her head. "I'm really not interested in drinking. But thanks for the offer."
"Okay, suit yourself. How's your untangling going?" Faith picked up her own drink from where she had left it on the bureau, and took a gulp of the honey-colored concoction.
Tara held up her coil of twine helplessly. "I'm not making much headway. In fact, I'm pretty much hopeless; I think I'm only making it worse. Oh, but at least mine wasn't the one going out the window." At her friend's dubious look, Tara insisted, "No, r-really, the last room I went through, there were a few strands going out the window and into the next one over."
"Huh, no kiddin'. I guess they take their icebreakers pretty seriously, around here. Can't wait to see some drunken frat boy tumble two stories out of a window."
Her growing ball of twine in hand, Willow gingerly navigated the dimly lit steps leading down to the fraternity's basement level. Her thread was difficult to distinguish from two dozen others that ran along the wall, twisting around each other and looping through heavy-duty staples that had been hammered halfway into the wall at irregularly spaced intervals. The lower level was warm, and Willow's arms itched from both the heat and the heavy wool fabric of her coat. She pushed a frazzled lock of hair away from her face, ineffectually draping it over one of her pins, and returned to the chore of unwinding her thread.
A squat pool table was centered in the room. It was in a dire state of disrepair; the felt was torn in several places, revealing hard, grey slate underneath. Dark amber stains spotted the fabric, and the colonial maple sported many scratches and cigarette burns. The table appeared to be a hub for the strands of twine, which radiated outward from its legs like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Following her own string, Willow knit her brow when she realized it disappeared into the occupied socket of a lit lamp. She supposed it must be wrapped around the base of the light bulb itself. 'Well, that's kind of dangerous,' she thought. 'It's probably a fire hazard or something.' The situation was problematic: in order to free the thread, she would have to extract the light bulb, and the bulb was almost certainly too hot to handle bare handed. Plus, it was the only obvious light source she could locate in the room. There was a ceiling fan with a light on it, but no pull-cord, and the fan had too many lines wrapped around it; she didn't want to chance accidentally turning on the fan instead of its light.
Willow ducked and weaved her way to an armchair that was set next to the lamp. On its cushion, she found a small oasis in the middle of the room full of webbing. She dug through her pockets and produced a handkerchief, which she folded back on itself twice-enough to provide adequate padding against the light bulb's heat. Gripping her roll of thread between her teeth, Willow flicked the lamp's switch with one hand, and began twisting the bulb with the other, using her handkerchief as a buffer.
"Hey!" a voice squealed in the darkness. "Don't turn that off!" The yelp startled Willow, and she almost dropped her bundle of string.
"Sorry! Sorry!" She fumbled for the switch, and a moment later the room was once again flooded with light. "My string's running through the lamp," she apologized. "I didn't see you down there."
A set of shoes stuck out from underneath the pool table. They slowly shimmied toward her, followed by jeans. "Willow?" Andrew asked.
"Andrew?" Willow ducked her head lower, and saw the boy tangled in a colorful web of twine. "Hey! I didn't know you were coming to this party. Are you-are you all right, under there?"
"Uh huh. Uh, hang on, I lost my-oh, here it is. It's a real mess under here. I've been trying to get my strand free for about fifteen minutes. Don't worry about the light; you're the third person who's done that."
Willow nodded. "So, um, don't take this the wrong way, but aren't you-I mean, you don't strike me as-aren't you a little young? For a fraternity party, I mean?"
"Heh. So which one are you: the kettle, or the pot?" the boy teased.
Willow stuck out her tongue. "Okay, you're right, but Buffy and Cordelia dragged me here. What's your excuse?"
"Tucker told me I had to go to KA's first party," Andrew explained with a scowl. "He said he was holding my copy of 'Turok: Son of Stone' for ransom until I upheld my 'brotherly duty,' as he calls it."
"Wasn't he only here for less than a month?"
"Technically, yes. As a student, anyway. But his ties with the Kappa Alpha Order are life lasting; he became an honorary member because during his first few weeks, he bred these-"
"Hold it," Willow raised her hand, halting the boy's narrative. "If this is going to be something incriminating, I'd rather not hear it."
"Right. Good point. So did Tara and Faith come with you and Buffy?" Andrew wriggled a bit to his left, and managed to weave his wad of string through a particularly nasty tangle.
"They're not students; you know that."
"Well, I saw them both a little while ago, so they're here with somebody," the boy countered, his voice strained from the awkward position into which he had twisted his body.
Willow's mouth was suddenly much drier. "Oh. Tara is here?" She unconsciously tightened her coat around her body, and cast a nervous glance toward the stairway.
"Yup. Last time I saw her, she was in one of the upstairs bedrooms, trying to get her string free from a bunch of coat hangers." There was a pause, then the boy sang triumphantly, "Yes! Got it!" He liberated himself from the webbing, and scooched out from under the pool table. Streaks of dust smeared his clothing and face, but his smile was wide and proud.
Cordelia grimaced as she unwound her string from the inside handle of a walk-in closet. "I've got to be honest: when I thought college fraternity party, I kind of imagined keg stands and beer pong, not a half hour of unraveling-oh," she flattened herself up against the wall as a young man squeezed past her, presenting her with a cordial smile. Her eyes followed him into the closet, coming to rest on his perfectly sculpted backside. "Then again," she mused, "I suppose it does have its perks."
"I dunno, I think it's kind of neat," Buffy replied from underneath a bed, where she had spent the last few minutes untangling her strand from a set of free weights. "It's something to do for the first hour or so while the party picks up. And I'm sure those things will come later; I'm pretty certain I saw the table in the kitchen, actually."
Her friend, however, was too busy imagining her virile closetmate shirtless for the blonde's words to register. "Hi," she said, offering her free hand to the young man. "I'm Cordelia. Are you one of the KA brothers?"
Due to her position, Buffy was oblivious to losing the brunette as an audience, so she continued rambling away. "I hope Will's handling herself well, being separated and all. I have this awful yet rather amusing picture of her managing to get herself completely entangled in a pantry or someplace. She seemed pretty intent on being the first one to unravel hers, though. Hey, thanks for-oof!-inviting us, by the way; I'm sure we wouldn't have landed party invites on our own, our first week on campus." She snickered. "Mom would be so proud. But, yeah, it's nice to have-oh, for crying out loud!" She nearly spat the last few words, bitter and venomous.
That caught Cordelia's attention. She reluctantly broke off her flirtatious introduction and excused herself, stomping over to the bed and peering underneath. "What did you do now? Did you hurt yourself?"
Buffy did her best to maneuver her body around the tangle of threads. "Guess one of us won't be finding a college hottie at the end of their rope," she remarked.
"Why is that?" Cordelia asked, frowning as her man of interest extricated himself from the closet and slipped out of the room, gathering up his twine as he went. She sighed.
"Because the end is under here."
Cordelia knit her brow. "It snapped? Maybe you can find the other piece and tie them together?" she suggested helpfully.
"No, I'm pretty sure this isn't accidental. This is the end of the line." Buffy began wriggling backward on her stomach, inching out from under the bed.
"Well, how do you know-"
Buffy freed herself from the net of strings and held up the last foot and a half of her own. Dangling from the thread, secured with several staples and a wide band of cellophane tape, was a single jumbo playing card: the Old Maid herself.
By the time Willow finally managed to unwrap her line from the basement furniture, Andrew had headed back upstairs, and a dozen other students had come and gone. Several had tried to strike up a conversation with her, but each had quickly reined in the attempt. Possibly, this was due the fact that the girl continued to wear a heavy wool coat, despite the sweltering heat of the basement; or maybe it was the terse, nervous responses she would give them, while focusing intently on unknotting her twine. She didn't realize that the tiny pink tip of her tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she worked on a particularly troublesome snarl.
When Faith sauntered down the stairs, Willow was pulling the last few feet of her string through a Nerf basketball hoop, which hung over the back of a heavily-postered door. She watched the redhead for a few seconds, wondering whether or not she knew the significance of her thread's color, before deciding to announce her presence. "Hey, Red, you coming or going?"
Willow looked over at the newcomer, her eyes as wide and expressive as a doe's. "I'm sorry, what? Oh, hey. Faith, right?"
Faith bobbed her chin once in the girl's direction. "What's with the winter wear? It's hot as hell down here."
Color seeped into Willow's cheeks. "Oh, um, I kind of-" She shifted uncomfortably and looked down at her attire, reluctantly undoing the buttons of her pea coat. "My friends thought I should-I mean, they said I couldn't wear what I had on before, and-and this isn't really me, and I'm not too sure I-I-" She sighed and parted the coat, exposing her outfit in all its glory. "It's a little, uh, embarrassing," she meekly finished.
After whistling appreciatively, Faith commented, "Damn. Ain't that somethin'? You've got nothin' to be embarrassed about; a body like that is just screamin' to be seen." She chuckled. "You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I've got in my closet. Trust me: you're gonna have the boys panting like dogs." Willow wasn't sure which idea sat more uncomfortably in her stomach: her existing fear that people would stare at her in amusement, or her new, budding fear that they would stare-might stare-possibly-because they lusted after her.
"Come on, pass it here," Faith instructed, beckoning for Willow to hand over her coat. 'God, do I want to be nearby when T sees this for the first time!'
For the next half-hour, Buffy and Cordelia took turns reeling in Cordelia's string. Buffy had long since deposited hers, card and all, into a handy trash receptacle, which nearly had been filled with beer bottles and red plastic cups. They navigated the hallways more easily now that the majority of the strands had been collected, although the number of partygoers was steadily increasing and threatening to fill the space that had been freed. Rounding a corner, Buffy walked headlong into a tall young man with sandy blond hair. She barely managed to hold in a startled yelp. The crash jarred the bundles of twine from both of their grasps, and they almost collided again when they knelt at the same moment to retrieve them.
"Whoa, whoa," the boy laughed, merriment evident in his hazel eyes. "Okay, no sudden movements." He stood carefully and offered a hand to help Buffy up, inconspicuously noting the lion she had stamped on the soft underside of her wrist.
"Sorry," she apologized, "I guess I should watch where I'm going."
"I didn't mind," the boy grinned, then followed it hastily with, "I mean, a few surprises here and there help to keep a fellow on his toes, right?"
Buffy tried to neaten the mess of string she now held, with several loops dangling all the way to the floor. She collected them, and when the last of the strands lifted off of the floor, she realized it formed a hanging arch, sweeping right up to the heap in the young man's hands. "Oh..."
Cordelia, who couldn't bear to stand aside while her friend made a total fool of herself in front of such a deliciously fashioned specimen, shouldered into the conversation. "Well, hello. I'm Cordelia. It seems you're the one I've-we've," she corrected herself, "been drawing closer to, this whole time." She gave him a winning smile.
The affable young man studied her for a moment, then confusedly looked back and forth between the two, and finally resorted to his boyish grin. "I'm Riley. It's nice to run into you-um, literally, I guess. Also, nice to meet you."
"Oh, son of a-you've got to be kiddin' me," Faith uttered, upon realizing her strand of twine was pinched in the window, and descended to the ground outside. She hoisted the window up and thrust her head outside, examining the string, which ran down to, and seemed to be wrapped around, a rather popular tree; a handful of students were already unwrapping their own lines from the trunk, and looping them up and over the lowest branches. Faith considered, just for a moment, climbing out of the window and jumping, but then she figured that was probably Jack Daniels' idea. Instead, she resigned herself to going back downstairs and out into the yard. When she turned to leave the room, however, the line she carried went slack. She thought for a moment it had been severed, and doubled back to check.
"Hey!" a voice called up to her. Faith squinted her eyes to make out the dark figure below. "Faith, is that you?" She thought he sounded familiar.
"Oh, God. Andrew?"
"It is you! How's the view up there?"
Faith realized that the bundles they held were connected by a final span of string, which was waving in the wind. "Kind of unusual," she replied, "and not exactly what I was expecting."
Andrew, unfazed by her offhanded remark, took advantage of the opportunity. "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!" he boldly called.
"Wherefore art thou a total dork?" Faith muttered under her breath.
"Finally," Tara said to herself as the last loop unraveled from the bedpost. She sat on the edge of the bed and straightened her back, then twiste, feeling a series of pops crackle up her spine. Reclining backward onto the mattress, she extended her arms high over her head and enjoyed a glorious stretch.
"Tara?" A hushed query barely carried over the raucous background chatter. 'Such a sweet voice,' Tara thought. Her lips curled into a content smile before she even sat up.
"That sounds like a Willow," she breathed. Tara lifted herself to her elbows, her honey blonde hair sweeping over the mattress to hang loosely at her back.
Willow took a tentative step into the room. "Hi," she gave her friend a tiny, self-conscious wave, unable to keep her hands still. She wondered why they were whispering, given the volume of the party; despite the congregation in the hallway just outside the door, the room strangely felt like an intimate haven.
"...Wow." She was a vision to Tara. Her eyes rebelled against her brain's insistence for tact, and ran the full length of the redhead, from her boots and stockings to her figure flattering carmine top. An aura of discomfort and vulnerability surrounded the girl, easily readable in her wide eyes and trembling hands, which clutched like a lifeline the string that ran between Tara's pile and her own. She reminded Tara of an angel. 'No, not an angel,' Tara mentally corrected, her gaze sweeping back down Willow's outfit. 'Far, far from an angel.' So accustomed was she to the flutters of adoration and puppy love, which often accompanied the arrival of her new friend, that it came as a surprise to Tara when this new feeling blossomed: a tightening of her stomach, a surge of blood through her veins, a pooling warmth. There was no mistaking her body's response: she wanted Willow Rosenberg.