It was a quiet ride home for Willow. Her senses crackled and buzzed; the low conversation between Buffy and Riley in the front seat came to her as if through an old speaker. She stared out the window of the Grand Cherokee blankly, unable to process the frames of college life that flickered past. Her cheek was pressed against the cold pane of glass. It offered a tingling reminder that the rest of her body, wrapped securely in her heavy wool coat, was overheated. A patch of skin just to left of the small of her back had begun to itch, but she resisted the urge to attack it; twisting her body about within the confines of the back seat, her coat, and the seat belt seemed too daunting a prospect. Instead, she tried to convince herself that the phantom twinge was only a figment of her imagination.
The distraction was a relief, because Willow was confused. Since waking up at the party, she had created a dozen mental checklists, but each and every one had been crumpled up and tossed into the recycling bin of her brain. Puzzled. She had been alone on the couch when she woke. No, not alone-the young man who had been present when she and Tara had first taken a seat was present, his conscious link to the world all but severed, and Buffy sat at a table within view, playing a card game with Riley and a few other students. She had even spotted Oz on one side of the cleared floor space that was acting as a stage, chatting with a few of his band mates and several partygoers whom she didn't recognize. But Willow was alone-the kind of raw loneliness that develops in the space between the heart and the stomach; the kind that keeps you awake late into the night after all of your friends have gone home, and you wish just one of them had stayed behind. Perplexed. Because Oz had seen her stir, he had interrupted his conversation and briskly crossed the room to kneel by her side. And as he had approached, Willow's loneliness hadn't dissipated.
And in that instant, her brain latched on to the thread her heart had been dangling.
Across the Jeep's leather-trimmed seat, Cordelia sighed heavily, and Willow spared her a look. The girl finished reading a message on her cell phone, and her thumbs flew over the buttons as she typed in her reply. Like Buffy, the Cordelia seemed to be inseparable from the device; Willow could hardly recall a conversation she'd had with her roommate that hadn't been interrupted at least once by an incoming text. The redhead's dazzling intellect, even subdued by the long evening of drinking, was wasted on guessing the topic of the conversation; despite having slept through most of the events that had transpired between the three, Willow recognized quickly that Cordelia was less than thrilled with the attention their chauffeur was giving to Buffy.
Riley had offered the girls a ride back to their dormitories when the crowd began thinning and only those too grateful for the weekend, or too inebriated to notice, remained. It was clear that Willow was in no state to make a long hike across campus in the cold and drizzly weather, and Cordelia, despite her bitterness at being passed up, wasn't willing to decline the offer out of contempt. So they piled into the vehicle, and immediately fell into a forced silence; Willow had enough conversations spinning around in her head to keep her busy, and Cordelia knew any words that issued from her mouth would be biting. Buffy and Riley spoke only in hushed tones on safe topics, a dialog that Willow easily filtered out.
Flummoxed. Because the person Willow wanted to stay behind, the person whose company she wanted-no, craved-was Tara. Of this much she was certain. It was Tara, only Tara, who could chase away her waking melancholy. Flustered. Because her heart beat faster when she thought of her new friend: of her scent, a comforting combination of oranges and vanilla; of her cascade of gorgeous honey blonde hair, which tumbled past the soft wisps at the nape of her neck; of her slender, graceful fingers; of the gentle hills and valleys of her curving figure. Addled. Because she wasn't just excited about having the blonde as a new friend: Tara excited her. Confused. Because Tara Maclay was a girl.
The apartment was dark and still as death. Tara listened carefully for the steady rhythm of her father's breathing, and held her breath to make sure she wasn't hearing her own. It was strange, arriving home to a dark room. She had noticed the reaction after staying out late with Willow and her friends three days ago, but that night she had been so relieved to find her father asleep that she didn't name the feeling for what it really was-she felt neglected. She wondered if, in other homes, parents would leave a light on when their child was out at night, a symbolic beacon to help them find their way home safely.
'Well, better this then having him sitting up on the sofa with all the lights on, I suppose,' she thought. The alibi, perhaps, would hold up if not subjected to careful scrutiny, but Tara was certain she'd be unable to lie directly to her father's face. The words would tangle, and minute cracks would appear at the center of the tale, shooting out like zagging lightning bolts to the corners, and filling in with expanding spider fractures. Then her countenance would crumble, and her father would have her.
Tara gave the kitchen doorway, lit by the eerie glow of the microwave display, an uneasy glance. She was famished, having taken an early lunch, then skipping dinner. She had noshed at the party, but nothing of substance, and the alcohol made even her bones feel hollow. The emptiness in her stomach paled in comparison to the fullness of her bladder, however, and the warning sirens it had been firing off for the past ten minutes finally sank through the heavy layers of her conscious. Suddenly, the laces on her sneakers seemed too time-consuming an impediment; she practically ripped the shoes over her heels, sliding her socks halfway off in the process. Still clutching the grocery bag filled with Wednesday's purchase, she made a beeline for the bathroom.
"So how did you like the party?" Cordelia asked, as the two girls scurried toward the shelter of Ellicott Hall. Her teeth were chattering. Above them, the three-story tall Gemstone banner whipped violently around in the gusting wind, all but tearing its anchoring lines from the windows. It folded and snapped taut, releasing a pocket of air that blasted the sky like the report of a cannon.
Willow jumped as the sound shocked her out of her reverie. She shook her head and hopped a few steps. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Cordelia frowned. "You're not ever really here, are you? I asked if you enjoyed the party."
"Oh, yeah it was neat," Willow replied meekly. "Uh, how about you?"
"Yeah, it was all right, I guess. I was hoping the guys would be a little more...what's the word?"
"Civilized?" Willow guessed.
"Polished. But it was pretty fun, overall. Buffy seemed to have a great time." Cordelia reached the door first, so her back was turned as she spoke. Willow, unable to read her expression, found her tone difficult to gauge.
"Yeah. I'm, uh, sorry about that," she hedged. The building's heat was a blessing, and for several moments they stood just beyond the entryway, letting it blast their skin.
"Look, yeah I know, I swallowed the bitter pill with the Riley thing at first," Cordelia explained, "but you know what? Forget him. His loss, anyway." She pushed the button for the elevator, and quickly ran her last statement back through her head. "Well, not that Buffy is a loss or anything. You know what I mean. It's a stupid thing to be mad about in the first place."
"That's, uh, probably a really healthy perspective-and, oh, wow, and I'm sounding exactly like my mother." Willow wasn't convinced that her roommate's heart was agreeing with her head, but at least she was trying to be mature about the situation. "In any case, it was really nice of you to invite us in the first place."
Cordelia shrugged. "It's not like it was my party or anything. I mean, your boyfriend was playing at the thing, right? I sort of assumed you had gotten an invite from him, too."
"Uh, right. Yeah, I'm sure he would have." The girls took six steps to the right-Willow had noticed that the probability of an elevator arriving was directly proportional to your distance from it, and that the floor it began on was completely unrelated-and climbed into the lift.
"So did he gawk?"
"Did Oz gawk at you when he saw the-you know." Cordelia swept her hand down, indicating Willow's outfit. "The new, improved Willow?"
"Oh." The redhead had forgotten her atypical attire, but the power to her embarrassment generator had been cut much earlier that evening. It was discomfort of a different type that filled her, now. Cringing, she unlaced and stepped gingerly out of her boots, flexing her stockinged toes. She carried the boots with her as they exited the elevator. "I don't know, really; I didn't see much of him, because he was with the band, and then, uh, I was sort of..."
"Blitzed?" Cordelia smirked.
"Um, yeah, I guess so." One by one, Willow removed the pins from her hair; by the time they reached their room, it hung in tangled copper ringlets. "I don't know how it happened. I mean, I know how it happened, but it was so fast. Like, laughing and giddy one moment, then all 'Oh Gods, the universe is turning on its side' the next. And then I got so tired."
"Yup, you're between a Happy and a Sleepy drunk."
"Oh, like moods?"
"Like dwarfs." At her roommate's confused look, Cordelia clarified, "When people drink, they tend to fall into categories descriptive of the Seven Dwarfs. You know, Bashful drunks, Grumpy drunks..."
"Doc drunks get wordy and philosophical, and tend to overanalyze everything."
Willow considered the working hypothesis. "What about Sneezy?" she asked.
"Fine, so it's not a perfect analogy," Cordelia shrugged. "Anyway, you're right; you went out like a light. I saw that blonde girl-what was her name?"
Cordelia nodded. "Yeah, I saw her practically carry you over to the sofa. Honestly, you looked like you were about to puke." The brunette scrounged through her purse and came up with a key ring, and unlocked the door. "Wait, you don't still feel sick, do you? Because if you think you're going to be sick, trust me: get it over with now."
"No, no. I'm good. No puking, here. Promise."
"Good." They entered the room, and Cordelia immediately retrieved a bottle of water from their mini fridge. Willow, her thirst suddenly registering, grabbed one as well.
"Thanks, by the way," she began. "For the makeup, I mean, and the fashion advice and preening and everything. Uh, I was pretty freaked out about it, but now that the sheer terror is over and all, it-it is kind of neat. Like-oh! Like a roller coaster, you know? With the big ol' scary hill at the beginning, but then when the ride's over, you feel all-well, okay, I don't really know; I've never actually ridden a roller coaster, because hello? Big ol' scary hill at the beginning! But I can imagine it's got to feel good. Like you've earned a merit badge or something."
Cordelia laughed. "You're a really weird girl."
"Yeah. Sorry," Willow said contritely.
"No, don't worry. You're cool, Willow."
Willow coughed as a few drops of water slid down her windpipe. "Whoa. Excuse me." She coughed again, and continued in a raspy voice. "That's probably the first time both 'cool' and 'Willow' have appeared in the same sentence without any negating words or disclaimers, ever."
Cordelia glanced at Willow's reflection in the mirror as she took down her own hair, then lifted her makeup bag from one of the shelves. "Speaking of merit badges," she said, "that was a hell of a kiss."
"Merit-what?" Willow asked, spinning on her roommate.
"That display you and Tara put on at the party. Didn't think you had it in you."
'Oh, Gods, nonono don't start thinking about Tara again.' Willow took a swig of her water. "I don't-uh, I don't know what you mean. I mean, it was a game, right? We had to kiss; that was the rules."
"Maybe," Cordelia said, sweeping a damp cotton swab over a blemish on her chin. "Although last time I checked, the rules didn't specify that one player had to end up in the other's lap."
"Cordelia!" Willow gasped. "It wasn't-I mean, okay, so she did kind of climb-hey, it's not like the others weren't-I mean, did you see what Faith and that Julie girl-"
"Whoa, whoa," the brunette raised her hands, interrupting her roommate. "Far be it from me to judge the makeout methods of others. Just making a casual observation." She flashed a toothy smile into her compact mirror and examined her teeth, picking at a little dark bit that was lodged between two of them. Dissatisfied, she grabbed her plastic tote of toiletries and dug through it for her toothbrush. "Like, say, casually observing that the temperature of the room shot up a few degrees when you two locked lips."
Willow's mouth moved, but no words came out, only a guttural sound.
"Anyway," Cordelia continued nonchalantly, "I'm going to take a shower. You should finish that water." She pointed at Willow's half-empty bottle. "Be back in a few." Cordelia took her towel and strode easily from the room, leaving a stunned, faltering redhead behind.
"So, here we are," Riley stated. He had pulled the Jeep into one of the short-term parking spaces in front of the Tawes Fine Arts Building-as close to Buffy's dormitory as he could get without holding up traffic-almost three minutes ago, but Buffy hadn't yet jumped out of the vehicle.
"Um, yeah. Right, I should get going then." Buffy checked her coat pockets for her dorm key, and lifted her purse from the floor mat to her lap. "So I'll, uh, go do that." She looked from the keys to her purse to Riley, and nodded. "Thanks for the ride." She reached for the door's handle.
"...Buffy," Riley began.
"It was very nice to meet you." Buffy spoke the words kindly, and even went so far as to offer up a friendly smile, but there was an underlying current of finality to the statement.
The young man wasn't one to ignore a firm hint. "Yeah, nice to meet you, too. Maybe I'll see you around campus, sometime. Keep it real."
Buffy gave one last wave and shut the door.
'Keep it real?' Riley thought. 'Keep it real? Jesus. Way to go, Finn.' He wrung his fingers around the steering wheel, watching the blonde dart across the curving street and make her way toward the far corner of Anne Arundel Hall. 'Well, salvage some dignity, man. Maybe you'll get bonus points for hanging around long enough to make sure she-ah, damnit!' he groaned inwardly, 'I should have walked her to her building!' He calculated the distance, but realized she had already reached a point where his rushing out from the Jeep would seem less like a gentlemanly offer after a brief lapse of manners, and more like an act of desperation. 'Well, crap.'
The girl turned the corner, and then she was gone.
A muffled thrumming sound carried Tara up through the lightest layers of her slumber. Feelings that had been present in her dream adapted to the knowledge that she was awake, and rearranged themselves accordingly-the aching discomfort in her fingers relocated to the thigh they rested upon; the hollow feeling in her chest slid down to her grumbling stomach; the chattering of her teeth echoed in her ears, as they picked up a skittering noise playing counterpoint to the rhythmic pulsing. 'Is somebody doing laundry?' she wondered. It was a silly thought, she knew; according to the digital readout on the alarm clock, it was three forty-seven in the morning. Still, she couldn't argue that the combination of noises she could register sure sounded like the apartment's stacked washer/dryer. Tara rolled to her other side-the pain when moving her legs convinced her that they would be sore for several days-and reassured herself that Donny was still asleep in his bed. She turned her pillow over and rested her head against the cooler surface, letting the curious droning lull her back to sleep.
It was a car alarm from somewhere down on the street below that roused her next. Tara was startled by the amount of light shining through the slats of the blinds that were pulled over the bedroom window. Instinctively, she checked the clock, and was relieved to find she hadn't yet slept through the beginning of her morning work shift. It might be a bad idea to rely on her father's showers to wake her, she realized, but she didn't like the idea of setting an alarm and waking up her brother so early in the morning.
Yawning, Tara gingerly slipped out of bed, and draped a bathrobe over her tee shirt and pajama bottoms. Ironically, Donny was already awake; she could hear the antics of Saturday morning cartoons wafting down the hallway from the television in the common room. Her brother hadn't yet outgrown his love of cartoons; this was one of the many private bits of knowledge she had that made his sometimes dark and gloomy exterior so difficult for her to wrap her mind around. Sliding her feet into a pair of fuzzy slippers, Tara shuffled across the hall to the bathroom, disappearing through the doorway, then backing out a half-second later and staring down the hallway. She could see Donny sitting on the couch, a bowl of cereal in his hands. Beside him was a large pile of laundry, neatly folded and stacked.
Her brow knit, Tara approached the boy. "Donny, did-did you do the laundry in the middle of the night?" she asked.
"Hm?" He didn't look up from his program. "Oh, uh uh; Papa must've done it."
Tara blinked in wonderment at the stack of clothing. It was several loads; she knew she had been behind on the laundry, and from the looks of it, her father had done it all. It was separated into three stacks, one for each family member, although she noticed that a few of her socks and tee shirts were in Donny's pile, and some of his items were in hers. He'd even done the towels; these formed the base of each pile.
"Did-did everything go okay, last night?" she asked hesitantly.
"Yeah," the boy nodded. "He was pretty tired when he got in. I told him you had to run out to the pharmacy, and he said he was going to bed."
"Oh, okay." Tara wondered whether her brother was going to ask about the party, since he'd seemed so excited for her in the days leading up to it.
"Well, I'm going to take a quick shower, and make some breakfast. Uh, you've eaten already, I guess. You want some toast or anything?"
"Nah, I'm good. Thanks." Donny's eyes never left the television.
"All right." Tara moved carefully back to the bathroom, her sore legs protesting each step. She turned the faucet in the bathtub on, testing the water temperature every fifteen seconds while she undressed. In the garbage pail next to the sink she spied the plastic bag she'd stashed away in the mailbox last night, which at the time contained her evidence of a late night run to the pharmacy. 'This is the last time I ask Donny to lie to Papa,' Tara decided firmly. She splashed her face with water from the sink, then tested the bath again. Finding it warm, she pulled the lever to redirect the water to the shower's spray, and drew the curtain closed.
Her hair still dripping, Tara trudged into the kitchen. She had just enough time for a quick breakfast before she needed to leave for work. Following Donny's lead, she took a bowl from the dish rack and grabbed a box of cereal from the pantry. She watched, fascinated, as the bran flakes and raisins tumbled into the bowl, and she peered curiously into the box. 'What are you looking for, a prize?' she thought. 'I guess Donny's not the only one clinging to childhood far too long.' When she turned up nothing but more cereal, Tara sealed the box up and returned it to the shelf.
She opened the fridge to retrieve the gallon of milk. Noticing a carton of white rice that had been present since their first day in the apartment, Tara held the door open while she threw it out, then weeded through the rest of the contents to be sure nothing else had expired. Happy with her work, she hefted the milk in her free hand and closed the door with a satisfying thwurp. Her fingers froze on the handle when her gaze traveled across a small rectangle of paper that was caught against the fridge door with a magnet, just inches below Willow's smiling note. Tara's heart thudded; her vision collapsed to the four sides of the paper, shutting the rest of the world out. It was a receipt for an 18-pack of Always brand Maxi pads, with the time and date of the sale clearly circled in pen. 'Oh, Goddess,' she realized, 'it was still in the bag!'