Return to Constants Chapter Twenty


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.

"Aw, come on, Will. It was an honest mistake!" Buffy pleaded, trailing after her best friend.

Willow had wedged herself between Tara and Andrew the moment they'd left the theater, and she refused to budge from the shelter provided by their presence. She shook her head firmly. "No way," she stated without looking back at her friend. "You are evil, and not to be trusted."

"I just got the titles mixed up a little. So it turned out to be a little bit different from what you'd expected-there's no harm in that, right?"

Willow spun around, gaping. "A 'little bit different?' Buffy, there is a big difference between Shine and The Shining. A huge difference! One has piano players, and the other has little boys with butcher knives."

Buffy didn't really have a response for that, so instead she shrugged meekly.

"I'm going to be having nightmares about those creepy twins for months," Willow muttered, releasing a shuddering breath. Tara gave her back a comforting rub. The blonde's forearm sported a ring of dark bruises where Willow's vice-like grip had clutched during particularly tense scenes in the film.

"Man, Nicholson makes a great lunatic," Andrew declared, seemingly oblivious to Willow's fright. "You know that whole 'here's Johnny' line when he's hacking through the door was totally ad-libbed?" He mimed swinging an axe, causing Willow to cower even more tightly against Tara's protective frame.

"It's okay," Tara reassured her. "No scary hotels, here. We're going back to a dormitory, see?" She pointed out the high-rise framing the quad at the top of the hill. "Lots of lights and people-students playing loud music, and...uh, goofing around...and...and..." Tara trailed off, and she directed a sidelong glance toward the building. "W-what exactly do people do in a dormitory?"

"Well, we're in the Honors dorm, which is mostly your geeky, nerdish types," Carl explained, slowing his pace to fall into step with the others. "So pretty much we revel in the newfound freedom and incredible social atmosphere that is college by, you know, all sitting around on our computers, just like we did back home."

"Porn," Eddie clarified, nodding sagely.

"Oh." Tara considered this for a moment, then asked Willow, "Really?"

The redhead's eyes widened. "Hey, don't look at me. The fact that two men of the male gender are freely admitting to excess perviness has no bearing on the goings-on in my dorm room."

"Three words," Buffy stated. "Browser, auto-fill, and Literotica." She frowned, adding, "Or, wait, does that second one count as two words?"

Willow sputtered at her friend. "Buff-I-but-" She narrowed her eyes into dangerous slashes. "As if you weren't already in deep troub-"

"And here's my exit," Buffy interrupted before Willow could finish her threat. With a parting wave of her hand, she veered off from the group and bolted across the street, aiming toward South Campus. "You all have fun in the Porno Dorm!" she called out from a distance.

Willow looked sheepishly at Tara, expecting to find her smirking or, even worse, offended, but if the girl was in any way affected by the conversational tangent, it was not evident in her expression. Instead, she offered Willow a friendly smile and a return to a safer subject. "So, uh, did your roommate not want to come to the movie?"

"Huh? Oh, Cordelia? We invited her along during the PanUM Games, but she had to head back to her sorority right afterward. She said maybe next time."

"She's there a lot, isn't she?" Tara asked.

"Yeah," Willow agreed. "Although she's been kind of a surprise, at the same time. I mean, when I first met her, I kind of figured she was going to be the Phantom Roomie, too busy to bother spending any time with us unpledged plebeians. But she has managed to balance it nicely, you know? It's true that she's not around a lot of the time, but I do feel like she's making the effort to allot some time for...just being in the room, I guess, and hanging out with Buffy and me."

"So you get along? That's really good. I can't imagine being assigned somebody to live with by lottery."

"Oh, I couldn't, either. I was so scared when I missed the housing request deadline, which would have let me pair up with Buffy in a double. I figured the fates would conspire to give me the worst roommate possible. You know, somebody loud, messy, always wanting to use my laptop..."

Tara chuckled while listening to the redhead. "And what about Buffy? Did she get a good roommate?"

"I guess so," Willow shrugged. "I haven't really talked with Beth much. She was on our team, at the PanUM Games. Do you remember?"

"Mm-hm. She was the shorter girl with the fuzzy hat?"

Willow nodded. "That's right. She's pretty quiet. Buffy says she's fine as a roomie, though, so I guess we both kind of lucked out."

"Cool." Tara pointed out the three boys, who had continued walking briskly up the hill. "We're falling behind again. How does that always happen?"

"Shorter legs?" Willow guessed.

They hurried ahead, closing the distance, and arrived at the dormitory at the same time as the boys did. The group of five piled into Ellicott Hall's ground-floor hallway, where Carl stepped forward to push the button for the elevator. Willow became increasingly anxious as they waited; she wrung her hands together and stared at the elevator doors. Thanks to their midnight movie viewing, her head filled with ghastly images of the cold steel sheets parting to flood the lobby with a surging river of blood.

Willow hated the sight of blood. When she was eleven years old, she had been present while Xander, attempting a daredevil stunt, had fallen off of his bicycle. The impact of the concrete had driven the boy's front teeth clear through his tongue, and Willow had never seen so much blood. It had spilled from his mouth in a crimson torrent, pooling below the shocked boy and paralyzing Willow where she stood on the sidewalk. It had felt like hours before she was able to move-to run inside, screaming for her mother. As Willow reflected upon the memory, she became convinced that the moment the elevator doors separated, something in the building's walls would rupture, and a bloody deluge would gush into the...

"Do you want to take the stairs?" Tara asked suddenly.

"That's a great idea," Willow hastily agreed, spinning to follow the girl toward the stairwell.

Andrew looked at Willow suspiciously. He swiveled his chair and scooted it away from the desk so that he could stand, then backed away a step, keeping the chair between himself and the redhead. "I don't get it," he said.

"Can I leave them here?" Willow asked again, holding out a handful of cutlery.

"You want me to take your utensils?" the boy questioned, his words laden with distrust. "Is this a trick or something? Are you trying to get back at me for the axe comment?"

Willow shook her head. "I'm serious. Can I just leave these in your room, and maybe pick them up sometime tomorrow?" The girl did not appear to register the bizarreness of her request.

"Um, sure. Yeah, okay. Just put them on there?" Andrew pointed at a dresser that was pushed up against the wall next to Willow.

"Great! Thanks." Willow deposited the pile of utensils on the dresser after clearing a space amidst several dozen miniature figurines, each one painted with fastidious detail. She picked one up and examined it more closely-a troll with a bazooka was her best guess-before replacing it on the dresser top. "Uh, so that was it." She turned to leave, but stopped. "Oh, hey, I forgot to mention earlier: Faith said that it would be okay to move the next session to either Tuesday or Wednesday. Tuesdays are better for me, but I could to a late Wednesday meeting if that works for everyone else."

Andrew's ears perked up. "Oh? Okay, that's good. Either day is fine for me; I'll check with the others." He picked at a loose flap of one shoe with the toe of the other, and let the action draw his gaze while he asked, "So, uh, out of curiosity, has know, has she ever said anything about me?"

"That depends," the redhead replied archly. "Are you admitting that you have a big ol' crush on her?"

"I didn't say that."

Willow shrugged. "In that case, I can't seem to recall the details of our conversation. There might have been something, but it''s kind of fuzzy."

"Yes, okay?" the boy confessed. "I like Faith. I think she's incredible. Dreamy, even. Are you happy, now?"

"Oh..." Willow frowned. "Wow, I didn't think you'd actually fess up." She shook her head. "Now I feel sort of bad for the teasing, 'cause really, Faith hasn't said much of anything to me. She only mentioned the game as she was on her way out the door, and honestly...well, I don't really know her all that well. So, sorry, but no-she hasn't brought up anything about you. At least, not to me. Maybe to Tara, though; they've been hanging out a lot, recently."

Andrew grimaced. ", ever since the party at Kappa Alpha, I've felt a bit awkward talking with her. Tara, I mean. Like, I half expect her to get frustrated with me and, uh..."

"Suddenly smother you with smooches?" Willow finished for him. 'I know the feeling.'

"Not exactly. It's more's just weird to have kissed somebody you work with." The boy hesitated, then added, "No, you know what, it's not even that. It's that I know she, you know...isn't attracted to me at all. Like I can't even think of the kiss as some kind of goofy, playing-around at a party kind of thing, because I'm pretty sure she was just happy to have it be over."

"I'm not sure I followed all that," Willow admitted. "You mean because she was uncomfy with the game?"

"Well, that, yeah. But also, know, is really protective of her personal space, I guess. Around most people, anyway. I think she makes exceptions for you, since she..." Andrew motioned toward the girl with his hands, as if to indicate the completion of his thought.

Willow insisted, "Since she what?"

The boy shrugged. "Since she's got, as you said, a big ol' crush on you."

Willow's eyes widened. "What? Wait, you know that? How can you tell?"

"Uh, well, it's this neat trick I learned, where I have eyeballs and I can see blatantly obvious stuff."

When Willow returned to her room, Tara was studying a poster depicting the periodic table of elements, which adorned the wall beside Willow's desk. In the white space around the border of the table, lengthy mnemonic devices had been scrawled in a looping penmanship that Tara would recognize anywhere. It was the same handwriting that filled the scrap of paper pinned to the refrigerator door, back at her apartment-Willow's handwriting. 'How could I have forgotten to take that with me?' she asked herself. Of course, she knew the answer: because it was inches from the receipt her father had attached to the door, and she couldn't look at that, again. The very thought triggered a cascade of related memories, causing her hairs to stand on end and her pulse to elevate.

For a moment, Tara looked to Willow like she was about to bolt through the doorway. "Hey," the redhead breathed. "Did you miss me?"

Tara blinked, and then she was smiling. "Everything went all right?" she asked.

"Yup," Willow declared triumphantly. "The mission was a complete success."

"I still can't believe you took all the knives out of your room," the blonde chuckled.

"Are we forgetting the child with the butcher knife, already? Creeping around the room while mom sleeps?"

"But Willow, they were plastic knives from the dining hall."

"Well, sure, but-but that would be even worse," Willow declared. "I mean, just think about it: a plastic knife would take much longer to go through-uh, on second thought, actually, you probably shouldn't think about it." She shuddered at the notion. "So, you're going to stay, right?" The redhead's eyes were hopeful.

Tara glanced apprehensively at the neatly made bed tucked into the corner near the window. "You're absolutely certain Cordelia won't mind me using her bed?" she asked for the third time that night.

"I'm positive," Willow assured her. "She told me that any night she stayed at Delta, I was welcome to have people sleep over, as long as I washed the sheets for her. Oh, and she asked not to have any boys use it, but that doesn't factor into the equation, in this case. Trust me, Buffy's slept over here a bunch of times, already. It's fine."

The blonde gave it one final consideration, then nodded. "Okay."

"You'll stay?"

"I'll stay."

Willow pressed 'Play' on the answering machine, and the message crackled to life.

"Hey, Will. It's me, Xander. I'm really sorry I've been pestering you so much. I think I might be starting to bother Buff with the calls; the last time we talked, she was a little bit, uh...what the word? When you answer everything with one word sentences?"

"Terse? Curt?" Willow guessed.

"Anyway, I know you're probably caught up in the whole experiencing college thing," the recording continued, "but I wanted to keep you in the loop with what's going on here. Uh, I guess that's my way of saying I don't know who else to call..."

Frowning, Willow drew her desk chair toward herself, and sat down next to the machine.

"Long story short, my uncle Rory's back in the hospital, again, and in really bad shape this time, and Mom's not handling it well at all. She's yelling at my pop, like it's his fault, right?" There was a momentary pause in the message. "You know, I'm really starting to hate hospitals," Xander's voice sighed. "They're just so...oh, man, I don't even know how to say it. I've got a lot of respect for the workers there and all, but they all act like robots, or something. It's like if they realized that the patients here were actually human beings, instead of a bunch of information on a clipboard, it would...well, it's probably rough for them, too."

Willow's attention was pulled to the doorway when Tara eased the door open wider and slipped into the room. She had on a set of pajama bottoms she had borrowed from Willow, which were covered in flowers-pansies, Willow thought, although she wasn't certain-and a tee shirt that was much too large for either girl and draped well past her waist. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, still damp from her brief rinse. She was barefoot, and for the first time Willow noticed that the girl had nail polish on her toes; it struck her as being out of place. Tara padded toward her.

"-but Mrs. Summers said I could stay over at Buffy's house if I needed to, so I've been here since yesterday. Mrs. Summers says hi, by the way, and wanted me to ask you to remind Buff that her mom still exists and owns a phone-"

The blonde sat quietly on Cordelia's bed, reaching a hand out to rub the very top of Willow's neck through the curtain of hair. Everything was tight. "Guh," uttered Willow, trying to relax her shoulders, yet finding them taut, regardless. She slumped lower in the chair.

"-don't want to be any more of a distraction, just passing along the news as I find out. Hope it's okay if I call tomorrow; I think I should give the Buffster a break for a couple days-"

The answering machine clicked, and an electronic, packaged voice stated, "End of new messages." The message indicator stopped blinking, instead glowing a solid red. Willow didn't speak, but gave herself over to the ministrations of her friend. Tara's thumb pressed into something delightfully sore, and rolled back and forth over the spot. A sound that was half speech and half appreciative groan croaked from Willow's throat.

"Is everything all right?" Tara asked at last.

"Mm," the redhead murmured. "Oh." She straightened, and swiveled the chair to face the other girl. "That was Xander. His uncle's in the hospital for the second time in two weeks, and his whole family is getting really stressed out."

"Oh, I'm-I'm sorry to hear that," Tara said, the side of her mouth twitching at the mediocrity of her own words.

"Yeah, it's kind of bad timing. Not that there's ever a good time for somebody to have a stroke, but you know...with his best friends off at college, I think he's miserable, there, and-and desperate to have people to talk with."

The blonde nodded. She wanted to say something to help Willow feel better, but all of the words that ran through her head sounded like canned sympathy. Instead, she offered the girl a feeble smile.

"Right," Willow said, standing suddenly. "So there's that. But-but we're having a sleepover, so-so enough with the negative and let's get with the fun, shall we?"

Inspired by the determined look on the girl's face, Tara nodded in agreement. "Okay. How do we do that, exactly? What's on the menu of fun?"

"Well, when Buffy, Xander and I would have sleepovers in high school, we'd have hot cocoa and way too much candy, and we'd watch awful movies and make fun of them the whole time. But, well, we already did the movie thing, tonight, huh?" Willow paced about the room, her eyes darting from object to object, hoping something would trigger an idea. "We could, uh..." Her gaze passed over a brightly colored bag that was tucked under her desk, then snapped back to it. "Oh! Hey, I-when we went to the magic store I, uh, well I bought something for you." Willow drew the bag out from its resting place and dug through its contents. She picked out a box. "I haven't wrapped anything yet. Actually, I wasn't even sure when I should give this to you, but, uh...well, here." Willow presented the gift to Tara, simultaneously nudging the bag back under her desk with her foot.

"Oh, Willow..." the blonde began. "You got me...oh! Tarot cards." She looked down at the package wistfully, turning it over in her hands. "Wow, it's been years since I've had-oh." Tara saw something on the box, and quickly read aloud the description. "'The Herbal Tarot is a tool for studying the psycho-physical energy of herbs. It follows the general assignments of the Rider-Waite deck, but each card is assigned an individual medicinal herb based upon intuition, astrological and energetic values.'" She blinked. "I'm not sure what that meant, exactly," she giggled, "but it sounds cool."

"You like it?" Willow asked, peeking at the box again.

"Willow, I love it. You have no idea h-I mean..." Tara continued to gaze down at the box as memories flooded her mind. "It's perfect," she said after a moment, lifting her eyes to Willow's face. "Thank you."

Willow beamed. "When I saw it at the store, I just thought, you know, 'hey, that has pretty pictures.' Plus, you seemed like you knew a lot about plants and herbs and I bought it 'cause of that, but then later, when you were talking about your garden, I started to get really excited." Willow was practically hopping in her seat, so happy was she to have found a good gift for Tara.

"It's perfect," the blonde repeated. She pulled the flap open, slid a few of the cards out of the box, and spread them in her hands. "Although, I'm going to have to read up on some of them, I'm sure; I've forgotten so much of it. But hey, that will be fun in itself-lots of good memories to remember." She turned one of the cards over and studied the pattern on its back, a border of rosemary circling a subtle sea-green background. Looking closer, she noticed a couple lady bugs crawling among the flowers. "The artwork is beautiful," Tara observed. Flipping the card back to its front, she read, "Wild ginger. Seven of wands. Huh."

"What's it mean?" Willow asked.

"Oh, goodness, so many different things, depending on the context, I guess. The seven of wands usually represents a struggle against adversity, a kind of perseverance, I guess."

"And the ginger?"

Tara thought about the question. "Well, I'm not really sure how the herbs are supposed to be attuned to the cards," she replied. "Tarot has a lot of uses, but I learned mostly the divination stuff. You know, questions about what challenges I was going to face, or about situations I was in, I suppose because that's the sort of thing I wanted to know, back then. Whereas with the herbs, it was more about the medicinal aspects. I mean, there's so much more to it, but I only picked up the basic ideas while my know, while I was with my mom."

"What was wild ginger used for?"

Tara grinned. "I'd probably fail a test on this stuff, now, but...I think it was for fevers, uh...maybe food poisoning?" She shrugged noncommittally. "Or that could be entirely wrong."

"Well, fighting fever and food poisoning is sort of like overcoming adversity, isn't it?" Willow was determined to make the connection.

"Sure, there you go," Tara laughed. "Willow, thanks so much for this. I'm flattered that you got me anything at all, but this is amazing." She sported a mischievous smile. "It's much better than what I got for you."

"You got me something? What'd you get me?" Willow's interest was instantly piqued.

"It's a surprise. I-I don't have it with me, though. It's back home."

Willow shook her head. "No, no, no. I'm not good with surprises. My brain will spend three fourths of its energy thinking about it, and I'll be all kinds of distracted. It's something from the Magic Box?"

"Mm hm. Well, parts of it, anyway."

"Parts? This is a thing with parts? What kind of parts? Can you tell me where the other parts came from? How many parts are there, in total?" Willow paused, her brow furrowed. "And why does the word 'parts' make me think of zombies? I'm sure Xander is to blame for that; he's the self-proclaimed king of movies involving reanimated dead bodies."

Tara suppressed a laugh and shook her head. "Your train of thought is mind-boggling," she noted, then took a deep breath. "Yes, your gift is a thing with parts. I can't tell you where the other parts are from, because it would give away what the gift is. There are..." She moved her finger in the air, as if touching a series of invisible objects. "...oh, six or seven parts. And I'm not sure about the zombies, but I'm fine with blaming Xander if you are."

"Wow, you actually followed all of that? Most people kind of tune out the rambling."

Tara canted her head to one side and studied the other girl's face. "I can't believe anyone would want to do that," she whispered.

Light from the street was filtering in through the blinds covering Faith's bedroom window and painting pale streaks on the ceiling. She lay on her back atop the covers, her toes sweeping restlessly from side to side. Not for the first time, she considered pouring herself a warm bath and soaking for a while, but she kept coming back to the same two problems: the bathtub was in need of a good scrubbing, and it was too small for her to be able to recline comfortably. She groaned inwardly. Faith didn't feel the least bit tired despite the soothing music flowing from her stereo speakers and the deep breathing she'd been attempting-both had been advice from Tara, who had suggested the methods when Faith had admitted that she didn't sleep well, during last week's shift at the diner. Ironically, she hadn't had any trouble nodding off during Tara's visit, the past few nights.

Whenever she tried to wipe clear her mental slate, there was a worry willing to step up and occupy her thoughts, forcing her mind into constant focus. Tonight, that worry was caused by a letter that was sitting on the table in the other room. With a final glimpse of the alarm clock-it was 2:21 in the morning, only four minutes after she'd last checked-Faith rolled off of her bed and trudged toward the kitchen. The sofa bed in the living room was folded away, its bedding neatly stacked and tucked up against one of the arms. It was nice of Tara to do that, Faith thought, even though the small oasis of tidiness looked out of place when compared to the general clutter of its surroundings.

She had to admit to herself that she enjoyed Tara's company. Normally, the thought of having another person invade her private space would rub her the wrong way, but Tara was different. She was a thoughtful guest, for starters; she was neat-'much neater than me,' Faith recognized-she was quiet, and she didn't take Faith's offered help for granted. But it wasn't just the fact that Tara was a considerate visitor that made her presence welcome-it was the way she communicated. When they talked, Tara seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say, and had a knack for slipping through her bravado with a gentle respect, which made Faith open up without the usual accompanying feelings of suspicion or antagonism. After so many months of suppressing the need for friendship, and convincing herself she could be happy completely on her own, she was surprised to find in Tara exactly the qualities she would want in a friend.

Lost in her thoughts, Faith entered the kitchen and rummaged through the refrigerator. She found two cartons of juice and sniffed at the older one distrustfully before dropping it into the trash bin and peeling open the other. While she drained her glass, Faith absentmindedly lifted an envelope from the kitchen table. Unfolding the letter, she once again let her eyes wander over the letterhead and the ensuing print.

Dear Ms. Lehane:

Due to the increased cost of insurance and utilities, we must reluctantly inform you that your rent is being increased by $83 per month.

Effective November 01, 1999, your new monthly rent will be eight hundred eighty six dollars ($886).

We have been very happy to have you as a resident and hope you will stay with us. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call.


Realty Management Services, Inc.

"Whose turn is it?"

"It's yours."

" you ever had any pets?"

"I had fish, but I'm not sure they count," Willow shared. "My parents were always coming and going-lots of business trips and social outings-so they thought it would be a bad idea for them to have any pets in the house. I begged them for one-I wanted a kitten, or even a puppy-but they were firm about it. Eventually they let me get some goldfish, but they didn't last very long, which only further reinforced my parents' decision to have an animal-free household." Willow stared off into space, remembering. "I never did figure out what happened to them. I tested the water and everything."

The girls were lying in their beds in Willow's room. Despite the light being switched off, the space was illuminated both by streetlight, which the blinds could never manage to keep out, and by lights on the dozens of computer peripherals scattered around the room. Willow could make out Tara's face, resting above the curve of Cordelia's pillow. The girl's eyes were closed, and a content smile graced her lips. "Your turn," Tara said.

Willow thought for a moment. "What was your favorite subject in school?"

"I liked most of my art classes. There was only one that I didn't enjoy, mostly because the teacher was...uh, kind of...she felt very strongly about her particularly view of art, and was strict with-with students who didn't share it. History was all right, too, but again I think it was largely due to the teacher, not the subject."

"That's probably true of most classes," Willow agreed. "I was a fan of math and science, especially kinetics and chemistry. Basically, anything with formulas. I mean, I did all right in all of them, but I kind of felt safer with subjects know, you got asked a question, and you knew that there was a definite answer, which you could deduce, plug back in, and check. Much less open to interpretation and teacher whimsy, that way."

"You're talking about English classes, aren't you?"

"Well, I mean, what if some author didn't intend for some passage to be deep, meaningful insight into some condition of human existence? What if they jotted something down in the hopes that it would become a best-seller, so they could, you know, eat?"

Tara giggled. "While I want to agree, I'll admit that I got through high school in large part because of classes like that. I didn't have much of a mind for math, but I was pretty good at guessing what the teachers wanted me to think."

"Um, whose question was that?"

"Yours. It's my turn," Tara said. She was quiet for a few seconds, while she thought. "What is it like, being an only child?" she asked.

"That's...hard to say. I don't know what it's like to have siblings, so I'm not sure what I'm comparing it to."

"Was it lonely? I mean, you said your parents were gone a lot of the time."

"I was left alone often, yeah, but I'm not sure I was lonely. Xander was over all the time-almost every day, I'd say-because his dad was, uh, stern, and because we usually had my house to ourselves. So I don't think being an only child or having my parents gone a lot of the time was lonely, so much as...well, I kind of wished they were more involved with my life. I always had this pressing need to have them be proud of me, I guess, and-and maybe they would have been, if they were around, and if they had had any clue what was going on with me."

"Sometimes it's hard for us to see parents as-as human beings, j-just like us, except older. Especially when we're younger, and the thought of ever being grown-ups ourselves is so far away. You know, when my mother-w-when she passed away, I wanted to be angry, because...because it seemed so unfair, that she was in my life for such a short length of time. I think the only reason I kept it in check is because Donny was having such a hard time with everything, and P-papa...he...he disconnected...and if somebody didn't hold it together, the family was going to-to-I don't know what. B-but now that it's more distant, it's easier to let some of the anger go, and to-to be grateful for the time that I had with her." Tara opened glistening eyes and looked across the narrow span at Willow. "We usually don't get exactly what we want, w-when it comes to parents," she acknowledged, her voice quavering, "b-but if you can see through the upsetting things, there's usually something good beyond it."

Willow let Tara's words sink in, and when they were done, a silence hung in the air that she felt the need to sweep away. A dozen replies zipped through her mind-segues to other subjects, jokes she could crack-yet Willow ignored these. "I want to give you a hug," she stated plainly.

Tara hesitated. "Right now?"

"Uh huh."

"Y-you'd have to come over h-here, or I'd have to go over there, and the floor's k-kind of cold," Tara pointed out.

"I'm wearing socks."


Willow slid out from under her covers and stood. She felt lightheaded, and just above her socks her legs tingled with each step she took toward the other bed. Willow wondered, during the trip, whether any blood at all was reaching her extremities. She stopped next to the bed and considered how best to approach the hug. Tara was under the covers and facing her, so lying down and hugging her from the front-the simplest, most typically employed approach-might result in the accidental squashing of an arm or a knee, which were difficult to distinguish underneath the bedding in this light. Crawling to the other side and hugging her from behind-by far the more ergonomic position-would necessitate clambering over the resting girl's body, since the bed was flush with the wall.

While Willow weighed the relative merits of both options, Tara introduced another. She extended her hand, raising the sheet with it, and invited Willow into the snug hollow created underneath. The redhead lowered herself to the mattress and scooted into the nook below Tara's elbow, snaking one hand under the girl's pillow in the process. She eased the other over Tara's waist, and then the blonde was in her arms, wrapped tightly around her, pulling in moist gulps of air and dampening Willow's nightshirt with tears.

The shrill electronic screech of her cell phone ripped Faith violently from a dream. She reached for the shelf next to her bed, but the back of her hand collided with a floor lamp, which wobbled precariously until she righted it. Blinking away her stupor, Faith realized she was stretched out on the sofa, not in her bedroom. She rose unsteadily to her feet and used the sofa back as support to shuffle through the doorway to her room, where she stood stupidly, wondering where her phone had ended up. 'Jesus, NyQuil really messes you up,' she mentally noted. When it rang again, Faith located her phone in the pocket of a pair of jeans she had discarded on the floor and snapped it open.

"Yeah," she said.

"Hello, there," an unfamiliar, yet amiable voice replied. "I'm trying to reach Tara. Is she there, by any chance?"

"Who's this?"

"I'm Donald Maclay, Tara's father."

Faith snapped her mouth shut and picked her next words carefully. "Hi, Mr. Maclay. I'm sorry, Tara isn't here."

"Oh, I see. Listen, Faith...this is Faith, yes?"

"That's right."

"Faith, I'm very worried about my daughter. She's been staying out very late with a new crowd she met at the University, and hasn't been calling home to let me know where she'll be. I'm concerned that I wouldn't be able to get in touch with her, if some kind of emergency came up."

The line was quiet, so Faith offered, "Uh, huh. I understand."

"Great. So, if you see Tara-if she stops by your place, or if you hear from her-could you have her give me a call? Her brother and I are both quite troubled that Tara might be off at parties or God knows where else, without giving her family any consideration. Could you let her know, if she contacts you, that she needs to come home?"

"Sure. No problem, Mr. Maclay."

"Thanks, Faith. I'm sorry for the early call. You have a great day."

"Yeah, thanks. You, too." The call ended, and Faith looked down at her cell phone. " sonofabitch."

Continue to Constants Chapter Twenty-Two

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