The calendar was wrong, Faith realized. It wasn't June, anymore. She padded across her kitchen and flipped forward to September, giving more attention to the glossy photos of classic sports cars than to the rows of empty boxes. She twisted the thumbtack out of the wall, and fastened the additional pages with the rest of the months past. When she stepped back to admire her handiwork, Faith noticed that the year was off, too. Grumbling, she tore the calendar down and dropped it into the trash.
Tara, looking utterly bedraggled, was shuffling back from the bathroom when Faith tiptoed through the living room. The waitress still moved gingerly, although the doctor had said the pain should ease off in a couple days. She cast Faith a smile, which morphed into a yawn, before sitting carefully on the sofa bed. Faith glanced through the bedroom doorway at her own bed, its covers permanently kicked awry, then eased onto the thin mattress beside the blonde. Tara looked at her curiously.
"I'm sure you've noticed I'm not so great at the 'hey, you wanna talk?' thing," Faith began. "I guess I'm more of a 'here's a beer; let's get hammered and do something impulsive and stupid' problem solver."
"It might be a l-little early for beer," Tara said. "What time is it?"
"A bit before five."
Tara yawned again, and the two girls sat for a moment in silence.
"Um, so...do you? Wanna talk abou-"
"No," Tara interrupted, adding quietly, "N-not really, no."
"Oh, okay. That's probably good," Faith said, bobbing her head twice.
Five seconds passed.
"I'm s-sorry," Tara whispered.
"Eh. Look, everyone's got their own way to-"
"You were right," Tara confessed. She stared at her hands, and began cleaning the undersides of her fingernails.
"It's-it's my father. He hasn't-h-he hasn't been the same since my mother-uh, died."
Faith said nothing, but listened.
Tara sighed. "He drinks," she admitted, and then the words began tumbling out. "L-lots. And he's never happy; I-I think he's f-forgotten how to be. Sometimes I think he...sometimes it's like he can't b-bear to have a family. And-and other times he watches us like a hawk-Donny and me."
Faith finally spoke. "Like his visits to the diner?"
Tara nodded miserably. "S-sometimes he gets r-really bad...with the drinking. And then, I don't-I don't see him in there, anymore."
She was unraveling a loose seam at the corner of the comforter, and Faith reached across to remove the material from her fidgeting grasp. The blonde took a wet breath.
"I lied to him. A-about the p-p-party. He was upset."
"So you wanted to scoot for a bit," Faith guessed. "I get it."
Tara lifted pleading eyes to the older girl, her lashes clumped and glistening. "Y-you do?"
Faith answered both questions. "Yeah. I do."
They remained seated. Tara's sniffling tapered off, and the moment grew awkward as neither girl spoke. Faith finally broke the silence. "Uh, so how was that for you?" she joked.
Tara offered her a weak smile. "You do the friend thing just fine, you know."
"Aw, shucks," Faith hammed, rolling her eyes. "Anyway, I'm gonna grab a shower, then go score us some doughnuts. Whatdya say?"
"The Breakfast of Champions," Tara giggled.
Faith hopped up from the sofa bed and moseyed toward the bedroom. She paused at the door, one hand resting on the doorframe. "Did you mean that-the friend thing?" she asked. "Are we friends?"
Tara blinked. "Of course," she said.
"How about the Ellicott Seven Slammers?"
"Mm. What about the Honors Guard? It's sort of punny, and most of the team is in Gemstone, right? Plus, I can think of lots of taunts we could work the name into."
"You were a cheerleader in high school, weren't you?" Buffy guessed.
Cordelia laughed. "Guilty as charged. I've still got a pair of pompons in my closet, back home." She stopped walking long enough to strike a pose with her arms fanned out to one side. "Go Barons!" she cried, simultaneously pumping her fists into the air. Shaking her head, Cordelia resumed her walk. "It seemed a lot cooler, four years ago."
"Buffy tried out for the cheerleading squad, sophomore year," Willow mentioned, slowing her pace to fall into stride with the other two girls.
"Right. Tried out for," the blonde stressed. "It didn't go exactly as planned."
Cordelia looked intrigued. "Mm? What happened?"
"Oh, you know. Over-exuberance, sprained ankles, spontaneous human combustion-"
"-figuratively speaking," Buffy finished. "Anyway, I ended up as an alternate, and didn't feel like busting my butt for nothing, so I dropped it."
"Then she joined the other team," Willow continued. "I mean, the team. Well, one of the teams, anyway. The sports teams."
"I played field hockey," Buffy summed up.
At the bottom of the hill and across a parking lot, they saw the University's practice fields. The span of grass was teeming with students, who clumped together in sets of eight, each group wearing the colors of their team. Willow gulped nervously. Over the last two and a half weeks, she had been adapting to the sheer number of people on the campus, but this was different; these were athletes.
"Speaking of field hockey, is Riley going to show up to cheer you on?" Cordelia asked.
"How is that related to field hockey?" Willow wondered aloud, grateful for the distraction.
Cordelia shrugged. "I don't know. I was never any good at segueing."
"He couldn't make it; he's working tonight," Buffy said. With the party a week behind them, Cordelia's bitterness over the Riley situation seemed to have disappeared completely, and she was now at ease peppering the blonde with questions about her new beau. Buffy was relieved, and had developed a deeper respect for Cordelia; she could just as easily have held a grudge, and then Buffy would have been out a new friend.
"What's he do?" Willow asked.
"He's a peer-counselor at the Help Center."
"Is that part of the Health Center?"
"It's like a suicide hotline thing," Cordelia explained.
"Sort of," Buffy clarified. "It's peer counseling for...you know, for students in dark places, emotionally-bad breakups, deaths in the family, rape, stuff like that."
"Oh. Well, that sounds good," Willow said. "The hotline, I mean. Not the other stuff."
"It's really great," Cordelia agreed. "I already applied to do it next year."
Buffy looked surprised. "Wait, really? How? I figured you needed some kind of degree or license or something."
"Nope, you just do an interview, and then they make you attend training seminars. I don't know if I'll get it, though; they said a lot of people sign up."
"Huh. Lots of Psych students?"
"Some, yeah. But I'm pretty sure anyone can apply. Why? Are you interested?"
"Yeah, a little," Buffy admitted. "I don't know if it's such a good idea, though, considering Riley; work and relationships do not mix."
"You should sign up, Buffy," Willow urged. "I think it's neat, and you're always talking about how you want a job where you can actually help people." The girls were crossing the fields, now, and Willow kept herself wedged between Buffy and Cordelia, in order to have a one friend buffer on either side.
"Are we taking that as interest of your own?" Cordelia asked.
"Me?" squeaked Willow. "No, no, no, no. I'm not good with phones."
A figure in the middle of a small cluster of students waved them over, and they trotted the rest of the way across the first field. A few of their teammates were gathered together, and a boy was handing out light blue tee shirts from a bag.
"Large? Doug, are you serious?" Buffy asked. She pulled the shirt over her head, and even over her bulky sweatshirt the tee hung loosely, well past her waist.
"Sorry," Doug said. "We got a really good discount for ordering all one size."
Buffy frowned and tried to tuck the excess fabric into her jogging pants. "Is everyone already here?"
"Yup," replied her roommate, Beth. "The seven of us here, plus Harmony's checking the team in over there." She indicated a long table, which had been set up along the side of the middle field. A half dozen employees of the Campus Recreation Center manned it, and a queue of students stood nearby, each waiting for their turn to jot down the names of their team members on a clipboard.
"Come on," Doug instructed. "When she gets to the front, we've all got to go show our student IDs."
The group followed him over to the registration table, and one by one they handed their cards to Harmony, who dutifully wrote down their names and student identification numbers while one of the event coordinators looked on. When Willow slid hers into the girl's hand, Harmony began to jot the information down, then paused, her features bunching up in confusion. "Really? Your name's actually-"
"Just putting down 'Willow' would be fine," the redhead quickly interrupted. She grabbed her ID back as soon as Harmony's pen stopped moving. Willow had trouble stuffing the card back into the holder that was linked to her keychain, and she was so focused on the task that a sudden tap on her shoulder caught her entirely by surprise.
"GYAH!" She jolted, her keys jangling with the spasm. Willow spun to launch a reflexive bout of sputtering, but the words got hung up at the base of her throat.
"Boo," said Tara.
"Why you hypocritical little sneak!" Cordelia accused, when the members of both teams finally gathered together on the other side of the field. "All week long, we've heard nothing from you but, 'You all are cheaters. You've got ringers. If you win, it'll only be because you broke the rules.' And now you show up just as guilty as we are. That's like the blackest kettle...or pot or whatever...ever!"
"Hey," Andrew countered, defending himself. "You guys started it by inviting Buffy. In fact, almost half of your team isn't from your floor."
"That may be true, but at least we're from the University," Buffy pointed out. "Your team is recruiting from off-campus."
Faith chuckled. "Haven't a clue what you're talkin' about, B. Cassie n' me are bona fide Terps, and we got the IDs to prove it. See?" She held up a card with a grainy picture of a smiling Indian woman, positioning it next to her own grinning face. The two did not look one bit alike.
"Oh, so you're a recent transfer from the Maryland University of Culinary Arts and Identity Theft?" Buffy guessed.
"Sounds to me like you're afraid of having a little competition."
The blonde narrowed her eyes dangerously. "Oh, that's it. You guys are going down."
"Now that's the attitude I like to see! We'll have to see what you got, B."
Offset from the group to avoid the verbal sparring, Willow and Tara huddled together. The two made quite a pair-Willow in a vastly oversized blue tee, and Tara fitting her team's sunburst yellow shirt snugly over an alpaca wool hoodie. They watched, amused, as the rest of their teammates taunted and teased each other.
"So..." Willow said hesitantly.
Tara smiled with her eyes. "It's been a while."
"Seven and a half days," verified Willow. "Uh, not to be completely creepy and stalkerish, or anything."
"How have you been?"
"Good. Swept up in the first two weeks of classes; these courses really move along."
"You're enjoying them?"
"Oh, definitely." Willow nodded. "I've got a physics class that is not very difficult, but sort of intimidating because of the size; a Latin class with a really nice professor; a computer science class that's...well, kind of a breeze at the moment, but I looked ahead on the syllabus, and it looks like it'll get into a lot more complicated material by the end of the semester. Then there's a mythology class, and-"
"That's Ru-er, Mr. Giles' class, right?"
"Yeah. Right, I keep forgetting you two know each other. That's so strange to think about. I mean, not that you can't be friends with whomever, but back home...I guess thinking of grown-ups just reminds me of my parents, or of Xander's. Or even Mrs. Summers, although I suppose she's pretty in touch with our generation. You know, for a parent, I mean. Anyway, you and Professor Giles see each other at the gallery?"
"Right, a few times each week," Tara said.
"Really? I didn't realize you were there so often. Are you think about painting, again?"
Tara chuckled. "I'm thinking about thinking about it," she grinned. "Mostly, I'm just admiring. Have you b-been to the gallery?" A momentary look of frustration cut short her smile as she stumbled on her question.
Reflexively, Willow's hand crossed the four inches to the fleece covering Tara's arm. "I...uh, no. I sort of...haven't even set foot in the building, yet," she admitted. "I've been meaning to, since I heard you were a painter, but I haven't been able-wait, I don't mean I was only interested because I heard you were a painter; I mean that I heard you were a painter, and that reminded me that I hadn't seen the gallery, yet."
Tara brightened at the contact. "Well, if-if you w-wanted to, you could stop by some day. I'm usually there on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, after four thirty or so. And then I could show you all the pieces that make me feel completely inadequate as a painter," she joked.
"You're a terrific painter. I've seen proof." Willow's words brought rosy hues to the blonde's face. By this time, the rivalry between their respective teammates had grown to a fever pitch, and the two teams were creating their own events; Buffy led Faith by ten feet in a footrace around the practice field, but Faith was quickly closing the gap. "What's it like, being friends with Faith?" Willow wondered aloud. "Is she not so scary, anymore?"
"Oh, no, she's still terrifying, sometimes," Tara confessed, "but she's a really great friend. We kind of-we had a fight the other day, but, uh, I think we're okay, now."
"Really? What did you fight about?"
Tara's lips thinned, and she paused for thought. "Uh, well...she was trying to help me with something, and I guess I got...you know, k-kind of snippy."
"Snippy? I can't imagine you snippy," Willow admitted.
"Oh? H-how do you imagine me?"
There was a coquettish quality to the girl's words, and Willow's overactive mind tackled the question. 'Well, closer, for starters.' Half a foot was entirely too distant, she believed. Glancing down, Willow realized that she'd never retracted her hand, and that her fingers, as though powered by a will other than her own, continued to circle on the silky fibers of Tara's sweater. Reluctantly, she withdrew, and Tara noticed, sparing a glimpse at the retreating hand. When she lifted her eyes, Willow saw in them expectation. 'You didn't answer her question, you dummy. She can't hear you, in here.' "Right. Um, I imagine you...snipless. Lacking in snip."
An amused smile curled Tara's lips. "What about you?" she asked, leaning closer to nudge Willow's shoulder with her own. "Is it true that red hair equals fiery temper?"
"Only on very rare occasions. But believe me, you don't want to meet Evil Willow."
"I'll take your word for it," Tara giggled.
The girls were interrupted by Buffy, who slowed to a stop nearby, followed by a wheezing, doubled-over Faith. At first, Buffy threw her arms into the air in celebration, but she checked her victory dance when Faith dropped to one knee and began a coughing fit. Concerned, the blonde approached her fellow racer. "Are you all right?"
"I've...really...got to quit...smoking!" Faith managed between gasping breaths. When her lungs found a regular rhythm, she accepted Buffy's offered hand and clambered to her feet. "Okay, so you were right; I'm impressed," she said begrudgingly.
"Man, you were so close," Andrew puffed as he trotted over to the others. "I thought you were going to take her on that last stretch." Faith didn't offer a reply, so the boy continued. "Hey, Eric is finally here, so we were going to go check everyone in. You need a minute?"
Still breathing heavily, Faith straightened, pushing her hands into her hips and keeping her chin lowered. "Naw, I'm good. Let's get to it." She took a few steps after Andrew, then called out over her shoulder, "Next time, you're goin' down, B."
Tara hesitated a moment after her teammates departed. "Um, I guess they'll n-need me, too."
"I'll walk with you," Willow offered. The girls instinctively took the long way around the field, avoiding the sea of competitors who were doing warm-ups for the upcoming events. They walked leisurely and without a word, communicating through alternating glances and content smiles, before Tara finally ended the quiet.
"What's he like as a teacher?"
"Hm? Oh, Giles? He's terrific," Willow enthused. "He's definitely my favorite, so far."
"He's just Giles, now?" Tara teased.
"Oh, well...it's just, when Buffy and I talk about him-and it's mostly Buffy, I swear-it's...I mean, his name is Rupert Giles, so we-I mean, she-she says it in this really funny terrible British voice that I can't do at all. Not to his face, or anything, of course; wouldn't want him to know, and think that we were-"
Tara grinned. "He knows. He told me."
"Oh. Hm." Willow considered this, and a look of dawning comprehension crossed her face. "Did he say anything else about me?"
"Mm. He said, 'she gets really cute when she's all flustered and babbling.'"
Willow stopped walking mid-stride. "-What?! Professor Giles said that? He told you? I...that's...that's...well, I...I-I don't really know what that is. I mean, he's...he's old. Not that it-I mean, he is four stars after all, but-oh, and there's the whole...you know, the teacher and student thing, which is just...well, ew. And...and..."
Tara had paused, as well, and her smile grew more radiant with every word that spilled from the redhead's mouth. Unable to hold it in any longer, she burst out laughing.
"...and...and he didn't really say that, did he?" Willow surmised.
"No, he didn't," Tara confessed, "...but he should have."
"Hey, B...mmmff...I got a great...guh...view from over here. Why don't you...ungh...come take a look?"
"What's that?" Buffy retorted, her voice strained. "I can't hear from...oof...way over there. How about you come a little bit closer?"
The two girls, backed by the rest of their teammates, squared off across a white stripe that had been painted on the ground. A heavy rope was strung taut between the teams, with a bright red flag hanging from a knot exactly in the middle. They wrenched and yanked, causing the flag to bob up and down wildly, but it never moved more than a few inches from center.
"You know," Faith grunted, "if you find me that irresistible, all you've got to do...nrrrgh...is come over and say hello."
"Irresistible? I'm pulling with all my strength, here, and...graah...can't get you any nearer. I'm pretty sure that qualifies as repulsive, not irresistible."
Faith arched an eyebrow. "All your strength? Really, B? I'm disappointed. I thought you'd be more of a challenge."
"You know, for all your...guh...talking, I don't see you budging the flag at all, either."
"All right, that's it," Faith sneered. "Play time is over." She twisted her fingers more tightly around the rope, and wiry muscles rippled up her arms as she gave a mighty tug. The rest of Faith's team redoubled their efforts as well, and the flag moved, sluggishly at first, then gaining momentum until it, Buffy, and the rest of the Ellicott Seven Honors Guard tumbled past the line.
"Wow, those two really want to win, don't they?" Tara observed. She craned her neck to better see beyond the students lining the side of the field. On the grass, members from eight different teams lurched erratically between the painted lines, at times careening into each other and crumpling to the ground. Buffy and Faith struggled to pick themselves up from a tangle of limbs, then they dashed for the finish line, veering dangerously to the left as they ran. At the far end of the field, the next batch of students was preparing for the race by spinning endlessly around a series of Wiffle Ball bats.
When no reply floated up from Willow, Tara looked at the redhead. She was lying on her back on the ground, her limbs splayed out, gripping tightly at clumps of grass. Willow's eyes were closed, and her lips parted slightly, allowing only shallow breaths to pass through. Tara knelt beside her and pried the girl's fingers from the turf, slipping her own into the clammy hand. "Are you going to be all right?"
"Could you stop the world from spinning?" Willow asked weakly. "I'd like to get off, please."
Tara chuckled. "Come on, sit up. It'll be easier." She moved behind Willow and helped ease her up into a sitting position. Willow's head lolled to the side, and she blinked rapidly. "Try to focus on something nearby," Tara suggested, "like that traffic cone, there."
"Oog," Willow uttered. The orange cone in her vision yawed to the right. She shook her head and looked back at Tara, whose face at least seemed to be staying in one place. "How did we do, anyway?"
"You crawled across the line in just under two minutes," the blonde informed her.
"So I was last," Willow translated, frowning. "How about you? Did you do okay?"
"Um, actually, I didn't do much better. The spinning wasn't terrible, but I'm not so good with the whole..." Tara held her hand out, palm down, and wiggled two fingers in the air.
"Typing?" Willow guessed.
"Oh. Well, how is Buffy doing?"
Tara gave the field a glimpse, but most of the action was obscured by the onlookers. "I think they've finished; it looks like the next group might be up. I didn't see who won, but Faith was a little bit ahead when they crossed midfield." She scanned the sidelines and caught sight of Andrew skipping gleefully over to Faith and holding his hand up for a high five. The girl looked half embarrassed and half disgusted as she slapped his hand with her own. "I take that back," Tara added, "it looks like Faith won. She and Buffy are, uh, real competitors, aren't they?"
"Well, don't you want to win, too?" Willow asked. She leaned forward, finally able to sit upright by her own power. Her back felt cold where Tara's hand no longer supported her.
The blonde shook her head. "Not that badly. I sort of just like being here at all." Her fingers inched forward and brushed the back of Willow's tee shirt, which puffed out due to the layers of fabric underneath, and Willow once again relaxed into the touch.
"What would you be doing right now, if you weren't here at the Games?" Willow asked.
"Right now? I probably would have signed up for an extra shift at the diner." Tara's hand stroked a tiny circuit on the girl's back as she spoke.
"Well, I meant more like...what do you do for fun?"
"You mean besides the Dizzy Izzy?" Tara joked.
Willow twisted to better face her friend. "Yeah."
Tara hesitated. "Well, I-I'd like to say painting, but..."
"But not so much with the recently?"
"Right. Um, otherwise...the usual? Reading. Listening to music. Uh, watching movies with Donny..."
"Did you have a nice theater, back home?"
"Oh, I just meant on the television. I-I didn't go out too often...to the movies."
"Hey, a bunch of us are going to the midnight showing at the Hoff, tonight, if you'd like to come with us. Well, not at the real Hoff, because I guess there's construction on that wing of the Student Union or something, but at this temporary theater they set up in the Plant Sciences building. Or...oh, wait, no, you're probably working early tomorrow, huh?"
"Yeah, I'm on the usual Sunday m-morning shift," Tara nodded. Her fingers stilled on Willow's back. "Well..."
"...I w-would still, uh, like to go. I've-I've worked tired, before..."