Return to Constants Chapter Twenty-One


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.

In the groggy moments immediately following sleep, Willow tried to pick Tara's scent out of the others. Mostly, she could smell her own grapefruit scented conditioner, which both she and the blonde had used during their nighttime showers. She could feel Tara's weight resting against her front, nestled snugly in the curve of her body. Willow's arm was draped across the girl's still form, her fingers splayed over Tara's stomach. Idly, she moved her palm in a circular caress, then curled her fingers underneath, brushing their tips against the fabric.

'Something is wrong, here...'

Clawing her way through the last stubborn layer of slumber, Willow blinked open her eyes. She was alone. 'Wait...I'm on my left side, but facing a wall?' She held the thought until the rest of her senses could boot up to process it. 'Oh, of course.' She still lay in Cordelia's bed, her head resting upon the corner of her roommate's pillow. There was a lump in the bedding beside her, too small to be a person. 'So what is this?' Willow drew back the covers to discover her own pillow, which was tucked up against her, and which had until now been serving as a support for her arm. 'But I didn't bring my pillow over...and where's Tara? Did she-she didn't go back to Faith's, did she?'

A quick scan of the room offered some answers. The blonde was curled up on Willow's bed, sound asleep. She had bunched up part of the comforter into a makeshift pillow, although during the night her head had slid most of the way off of it and now rested upon the mattress at a strange angle. Tara's knees were tucked nearly to her chin, and the toes from one foot-nail polish and all-stuck out from under the covers and dangled in mid-air. Had the girl not been breathing so deeply, and had her expression not been one of serenity, Willow would have thought the position to be dreadfully uncomfortable.

Looking back and forth between Tara's sleeping form and the pillow that had been a poor substitute for it, Willow chuckled to herself. 'As if I didn't have it bad enough, already...' She considered trying to sneak Cordelia's pillow into the other bed, thereby completing the switch, but she didn't want to risk disturbing Tara's slumber. She looked so peaceful. Willow wondered whether Tara felt the same way after a good cry; for her, letting go and sobbing was cathartic, almost as though pieces of her troubles were flushed out with the tears. Afterward, she could always fall fast asleep.

'Why did she move to the other bed?' she mused. 'We were being all...together and...and cozy. She seemed content. Maybe she was worried that Cordelia would come in? Or maybe I was moving around too much in my sleep? Or...oh, no...was I talking in my sleep? Please tell me I wasn't talking in my sleep.' Willow's chest tightened. 'Please tell me I wasn't talking about her in my sleep!' She closed her eyes and tried to remember her dream, but the memory remained elusive. 'I was, wasn't I? I probably spouted out something weird in the middle of the night, and it woke her up, just like Oz is always saying I-' The thought came to an abrupt halt, and her eyelids flew open, her gaze immediately shooting to Tara. 'Oz...of course. Tara won't stay because of-oh, gods! I'm...I'm a terrible girlfriend! I wanted snuggles with somebody else! I didn't even think about Oz!' Willow was by now sitting upright, her mind pacing back and forth in her head. 'I have to tell him. He is going to feel awful, too...and then he'll remember the kiss at the party, and-and it'll seem different, and then he'll going to think I only brought the soup because I felt guilty, and-I must be the worst girlfriend in the world!'

She collapsed back into the pillows and forced her thoughts to quiet down, yet her tummy churned uneasily. 'Okay, okay. Let's think about this rationally. Oz is sick, and the soup is supposed to be for the sickness. And being sick is really not the best state to have relationship problems dumped all over you, so it's best not to get into that tomorrow. Continuing to put it off is bad, though, so maybe I should bring up the fact that there is something we need to talk about, but that it can wait until he's not feeling sick; that way, it's at least out there on the table, and I can't be a big ol' scaredy cat and never bring it up. So, there: we have a plan.'

With that, Willow allowed herself to relax, and set her mind adrift. At once, it sailed toward Tara.

'After she cried...and she didn't let go...and I kind of rubbed that spot between her shoulder blades...and she made that little whimpering noise...' Willow groaned. 'Oh, man, I'm in trouble...'


Willow jolted out of slumber, grumbled, and pulled her pillow over her head. 'Guh. Alarm clocks make the worst noise in the entire history of noises.'


'Darn it, Cordelia, turn off your-wait, I'm Cordelia,' Willow realized. She tossed the pillow aside and reached for the button on Cordelia's clock, only to have her fingers collide with Tara's, who had lunged across the room to do the same.

"Sorry! I-I'm sorry," the blonde hastily apologized, drawing her arm back. She noticed the bruises below her wrist, which had faded since the previous night, and turned her arm in a circle, inspecting them. "I didn't know how to, to use cow," she said, nodding across the room toward the contraption on the floor near Willow's bed. "So I left Cordelia's alarm set. Sorry it went off next to your head." Tara frowned. "And so early, too."

Willow blinked at the alarm clock. It was six thirty in the morning. 'On a Sunday? There is nothing right about that,' she decided. "You have to go to work already?" she asked, the words coming out scratchy.

Tara began moving around the room, making sure all of her belongings were gathered together. "Not quite yet, but I do need to stop at Faith's first-have a shower, put on work clothes..." She picked up the pack of Herbal Tarot cards from Willow's desk and ran her fingertips lovingly over the designs on the box. Kneeling, she carefully placed them atop the other items in her overnight bag. "I can't very well show up wearing pajamas, can I?"

"I don't know, I think all jobs should consider pajamas suitable work attire," Willow stated with an authoritative nod. "Besides, pajamas would be a step up formality-wise from some of the shirts I've seen Faith wearing."

"Mm. Richard keeps saying he needs to have a talk with her about that. But these are yours, anyway," Tara pointed out, tugging at the fabric.

"I wouldn't mind, if it was all in the name of comfort at work." Willow grinned over her pillow. "That is, unless you have a problem wearing pansies all day." She paused. "Uh, they are pansies, right?"

"Hm?" Tara looked closer at the purple and yellow floral print of the pajama bottoms. "Oh. Yes. Probably heartsease. Johnny Jump Ups. I always liked that name," she said, smiling at the memory. "These, pansies, violets...all sort of the same flower family." Tara stood. "Okay, am I forgetting anything?" she asked, giving the room a visual once-over.

"If you give me a couple minutes to throw on some clothes, I'll walk down with you."

Tara considered Willow's posture, bundled under the covers as she was. "You look comfy under there," she pointed out. "There's no reason to get up."

"But, I don't mind getting up if I get to-" A yawn cut off the rest of Willow's argument, which she meekly covered with her hand.

"You see?" Tara arched an eyebrow. "You stay put."

Willow burrowed a bit deeper under the covers. "Yes, ma'am."

After looking over the room one last time to be sure she wasn't missing anything, Tara sat down on Willow's empty bed and waited. Willow watched her curiously while the blonde fidgeted for a minute, then peered at her expectantly. "Willow-"


"I, uh...I k-kind of need know...p-put on clothes?"

"Right," Willow nodded. A second passed before the request sank in. "Oh! Right. Sorry." The redhead rolled to her other side, and examined the wall as though fascinated by it. 'Okay, wall. How's it going? Still holding up that ceiling, I see. Funny running into you like this. Heh, running into a wall. Get it? Yup, yup. Just you and me, here. You and me, yooou and meee...and oh gods, Tara's probably standing behind me right now in her-Oh! Hey, would you look at that; you've got a little chip missing, there, in your paint...'

"Okay," Tara mumbled, and Willow looked over just as the girl placed the borrowed pants, neatly folded, on Willow's chair. Tara had already put on her jacket, and her bag dangled from her hand. "So, um, I'm going to head out. Thanks for inviting me to stay, and, get some sleep. Have some nice dreams." She edged toward the door, but hesitated as she passed the bed Willow was occupying. Blue eyes rose to meet the redhead's gaze, then just as quickly glanced away.

Thinking fast, Willow dug her arms out of the blankets and opened them wide in invitation. Tara hovered uncertainly at the bedside for a moment before setting her bag on the floor and sitting down on the mattress beside Willow, who shimmied closer and propped herself up just enough for Tara to circle her arms around the girl's back. As they swayed in tiny movements from side to side, Tara breathed into the embrace, "Willow..."

"Hm?" The redhead's fingers found their way between Tara's shirt and the heavier material of her jacket, and she slid her hands along Tara's back, relishing the warmth radiating through the fabric.

"Thanks know, everything," Tara whispered. "The movie, the present, the, and the shoulder to cry on. I really...I-I sort of needed that."

Willow nodded her head, her chin nudging Tara's shoulder. "Of course. It's-well, I hope stuff will be okay, you know?"

"It'll be okay." Reluctantly, the girl released her hold and stood. "All right, time to go. I'm not sure when-uh, when we might bump into each other again."

"You mean after I stop by the diner to get breakfast in a few hours?" Willow asked, absolutely straight-faced.

"I can't tell if-really? You're going to come by?"

Willow nodded. "Mm hm. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all."

It tore through the meadow, its passage marked by a ripple in the tall stalks of pine bluegrass, which were illuminated by a pale glow from a series of roadside light posts. In its wake, three sinister shapes closed in. They were quickly converging on their prey with uncanny accuracy, their razor-sharp spines barely visible above the grass. It could hear the grunts and snuffling of the beasts' labored breathing through wet nostrils, and the sounds of aggressive pursuit spurred it to an even more frantic pace.

If it could only make it across the road, it might have a chance. On the other side the ground rose to an incline, and it knew it could travel uphill faster than the hunters. Whatever lead it could open up on the slope would have to be enough to cover the short run to the tree line and the safety of the forest. There, it had the advantage; it could scamper up a tree and leap from limb to limb or disappear into the thick undergrowth.

The hunters were right on top of it; at any moment, it expected their weight to bear it to the ground. Then their jaws would clamp down, and death would inevitably follow. The hunters possessed teeth appropriate for the killing machines that they were-long, piercing canines to grip and hold, and keen-edged carnassials to saw through flesh and bone, rending strips of dripping meat from the rest of the body.

A final curtain of grass parted, and suddenly it was running across packed earth, pebbles, and sand. Half a moment later, it reached the road, just as it heard the hunters break into the open as well, trampling the ground in their relentless charge. So full were its thoughts of the hunters' dental hardware that it didn't register the oncoming vehicle until the very last second.

Traveling too rapidly, it skittered under the car, avoiding the deadly tires by the narrowest of margins. A searing pain zigzagged through its hind quarters, but it retained control of its legs, so it kept running. The first of the hunters, focused solely on its meal, impacted the passenger-side door of the vehicle with crushing force, shaking the car's frame; the second, given an extra fraction of a second to react, attempted to leap the obstacle and collided with a window, leaving a blood-smeared spider web of cracks in the glass.

The car's tires squealed and slid on the pavement. It swerved over the divider and back again, but the driver was unable to regain control, and the automobile veered off the edge of the road. Glass sprayed into the meadow as the front of the vehicle wrapped around the solid base of a light, and suddenly everything was quiet. Only the mild hiss of steam issuing from the car's engine could be heard.

When it reached the top of the hill, it finally spared a brief glance backward. Its tail was gone, almost certainly snagged and ripped clean off; it was probably lodged somewhere in the machinery beneath the vehicle. The hunters had given up pursuit; one lay motionless on the road, a second limped dazedly back toward the meadow. The final beast sat quietly at the bottom of the hill, glowering up at it-a venomous glare that promised the creature would one day have its revenge.

Valerie tapped quietly at Professor Giles' office door. She could see the man through the panel of reinforced glass; he lay on his roll-out air mattress, and his feet protruded from behind his desk. He didn't respond to the sound, so she turned the knob and leaned into the room.

The professor was asleep and snoring loudly. He seemed to be in the middle of a dream, for his eyes fidgeted wildly under their lids, and between congested snores he would twitch and whimper. Occasionally his lips would move as if to speak, but no coherent words came out. Valerie crept into the room and peered around the desk.


The man's fingers clenched, grasping at open air.

"Professor Giles?" the young woman asked again, louder.

His eyes snapped open, and he lurched halfway off of the mattress. Struggling to a sitting position, he placed one hand over his chest and rasped, "Goodness. Valerie, hello. I'm sorry, I must have dozed off."

The girl looked over the mattress and bedding. A pillow lay a foot away, under the desk. "Uh huh. I can see that. You were here...grading papers?"

"Yes, yes. That's right."

"And in the middle of your work you nodded off?"

"Absolutely. It happened just like that."

"And luckily you landed on this mattress, which somebody had thoughtfully brought out, blankets and all."

The professor grimaced. "Well, I suppose that last bit requires a certain suspension of disbelief," he admitted. Rubbing an uncomfortable soreness out of his neck, he rose to his feet and nudged the pillow over toward the rest of the pile. The action unbalanced him, and Valerie reached out to stabilize the tall man's teetering frame. "Thank you. Perhaps it would be best to, ah, not bring this up to the others?"

Valerie chuckled good-naturedly. "Don't worry, Professor; your secret's safe with me." She watched the man kneel and begin deflating the mattress. "What are you doing here, though? Didn't you leave early, yesterday evening? You didn't come right back to spend the night, did you?"

"No, no," Professor Giles replied. He reached out for his wristwatch, which lay on the desk chair next to his tie. "I've only been here for the last-er, hour and a half, or so."

"Why the early morning?"

"To be honest, I didn't sleep particularly well, last night," the man confessed, "so I thought, being awake, that I might at least use the time to catch up on some work." He eyed the mattress critically. "Of course, as soon as I arrived, perhaps due to the change of scenery, I found that I could fall right asleep."

"Funny how that happens. I'm the same way; whenever I can't fall asleep in my own bed, I go to my brother's old room, and it's lights out in five minutes." Valerie handed the professor his pillow, which was the final piece of bedding he shoved into the cabinet. "Can I get you anything? Coffee?"

Professor Giles shook his head. "No, thank you, Valerie. I'll just fix myself some tea." Yawning, he shuffled out to the main office, and slumped down into one of the chairs. He reached for the basket of teas, and picked through them. None of the packets looked the least bit appealing. A memory of a conversation with Tara, days earlier, flashed through his head. Oddly enough, they'd been discussing sleep, or rather lack thereof. The girl had mentioned using chamomile tea for a relaxing night's sleep, and the topic had shifted to tea. In the course of their discussion, Tara had recommended that he try the tea they served at her workplace; she promised it was more than tasty.

Frowning down at the basket, the professor said, "On second thought, maybe I'll run out and have some breakfast, as well." He glanced at Valerie, who was tugging a notebook out of her backpack. "Would you care to join me, or perhaps I could bring something back for you?"

"Oh, no thanks," the girl replied. "I had breakfast before I came in. Besides, I'm chaining myself to this chair until I finish my paper. It's due Wednesday, and I'm still waiting for the last-minute panic to kick in."

"Very well, then. Good luck with it." He patted his pockets to ensure his keys and wallet were present, and adjusted his glasses to rest higher upon his nose. "I'll see you in an hour or so."

"See you later, Professor."

Tara leaned back against the counter, setting her glass down shakily upon the surface. She did her best to put forth a calm, collected image, but her trembling fingers betrayed her. "Oh," she said. "D-did he sound angry?"

Beside her, Faith spooned batter onto a piping hot griddle. "No, he sounded like he was trying really hard not to sound angry." Disgustedly, she slammed the bowl onto the counter harder than was necessary, and threw the spoon into it. "I hate that false cheerful front bullshit," she seethed. "It's like he thought if he said my name another ten times, I'd mail him a Father of the Year award or some crap."

The blonde frowned at her friend's reaction, but let it pass. "So he said to call him?"

"That or scamper right on home," Faith grumbled, grabbing a spatula from a hook on the wall. She fixed her gaze on Tara. "If you're not ready to hear that message, then I never said anything about it," she offered. "The call could have just...conveniently slipped from my mind, if you know what I mean. I do have other things to worry about, after all."

Tara looked down at her hands and shook her head. "N-no, I should-I should r-really go back, today. When I left, I didn't really, uh, think everything through. It was just supposed to be for a day, but-but it was nice g-get away for a bit. I can't just crash on friends' sofas forever, though," she sighed, flashing the other girl a smile she didn't really feel.

"Actually, that's something I wanted to ask you about," Faith segued effectively. "I've been thinkin' about maybe moving to a different place. Might be nice. You know, more space, better view...somebody to help cover rent-all the stuff I seem to be lacking in my current living situation." She turned away from the heat of the griddle and wiped her hands on her apron, then ran a towel across her forehead. "Seems you might be able to benefit from a change in scenery just as much as me," she pointed out.

Tara looked surprised. "Faith, are you asking me to move in with you?"

"That's the general idea, yeah."

"But, w-what happened to, 'I'd go crazy if I had to share my space with anyone?'"

"I'm pretty sure I said, 'I'd go bat-shit insane,'" Faith corrected her.

"Still," Tara said, indicating her point remained valid.

"I dunno," Faith shrugged, "maybe it wouldn't be so terrible. I mean, you seem tolerable." Tara figured that admission was the highest praise possible from the girl. "Besides, I don't think I can keep up with rent at my current place, and you seem to be...well, havin' a blast away from the homestead, right?"

"Faith, I appreciate the offer. I really do. But there's no way I c-could...I can't move out. I've-I've got responsibilities. Who would look after Donny?"

"It's not like I'd be moving that far away," Faith persisted. "I mean, I've got to stay close enough to work, 'cause hell if I'm leaving this place; this is the best job I've had in a while."

Tara shook her head. "I'm-I'm sorry, b-but I just can't."

The chef sighed and shoveled the pancakes onto a plate. "If I keep pestering you about it, am I more likely to convince you to move in, or to piss you off again?"

"Please don't do that..."

"All right, T. Well, the offer still stands in the short term, 'til I find a cheaper place, or find myself another roomie."

"Hey," Andrew greeted when Willow dragged herself through the diner's entrance. "Huh. Geez, you look even more tired than I am. Did you sleep at all?"

"" the girl mumbled. Andrew lead her over to a table. Once seated, she answered wearily, "And yeah, we stayed up way too late, and then I kept waking up during the night. I don't think I got much uninterrupted sleep."


Willow blinked tiredly. "What?"

"Who's 'we?' Who did you stay up late with?"

"Oh, was Tara. She stayed over."

"What?! Really? Man, how come nobody ever tells me anything?" Andrew pouted. "I'm like...I'm outside of the gossip circle, or something."

"It's not really gossip-worthy," Willow pointed out.

"What do you mean? Of course it's gossip-worthy. It's practically scandalous," the waiter grinned. He leaned closer and asked in a hushed voice, "Were there lips involved in the interrupting?"

A second passed. "Andrew! No, how can you even-it's not like we-why do you-"

"Ha!" the boy declared triumphantly, pointing an accusing finger at the redhead. "You had to think about it. You hesitated. Never hesitate!"

"Andrew, are you badgering the clientele?" Tara asked, approaching the table. "And why did you seat her in my-oh. H-hi, Willow."

Smugly, Andrew turned on his heel and strode away, breathing a soft, 'You're welcome,' to Tara as he passed.

Tara, still caught off guard, smile sheepishly at the girl. "Hi," she repeated.

"Long time, no see," Willow joked, tucking her jacket into the corner. "How have, uh...the last couple hours been?"

"Quiet, actually. And Willowless, s-so nowhere near as pleasant as the ones before them. Did you have a nice nap?"

"I wish. Just as I was about to fall back asleep, the alarm in the room directly under mine went off. I could hear it through the floor. It just beeped and beeped for ages. I guess whoever set it must have forgotten about it and left, or something."

"Oh. That sounds awful..."

"Mm. So I went down there and left a strongly worded note on their door," Willow concluded.

Tara giggled. "Sheriff Rosenberg."

Willow nodded authoritatively. "Darn tootin'."

The waitress raised an eyebrow. "Can I get you anything to eat, Sheriff?"

"Definitely. Coffee." 'Was that flirting? Is Tara flirting with me?' Willow quickly scanned the menu. "And, uh, a bagel? With cream cheese?" 'It was. That was definitely flirting!'

"Anything else?"

"I'll probably have more coffee, after the first coffee is finished," Willow admitted. "Oh, and do you have any soup? Anything brothy? As opposed to creamy, I mean. It's to go-just the soup, that is, unless you don't have any. The rest is staying put. Or, well, going with me, I guess, but in my tummy."

"Uh huh. We've got fakes-that's with lentils, but it's kind of thick-and your basic vegetable pasta soup." Tara pointed to the entries on the menu. "Onions, zucchini, celery, and so forth."

"Hm. Do you have anything like that, but with less veggies and more...chicken, or something?"

"How about the avgolemono with chicken and rice?"

Willow read over the description. "Yeah, that looks great. To go," she repeated.

Tara nodded, jotting the order down on her pad. "You're going to bring it to your-?"

"To Oz, yeah," Willow finished for her.

"How's he doing?"

"I don't know; I haven't talked with him this morning. I thought I'd just, you know, show up and do the whole surprise pampering thing. 'Cause really, who doesn't love a good pampering when they're sick?"

Tara could only bob her head in agreement, while a reflexive longing bubbled to the surface. 'It must be nice, having somebody to care for you when you're sick...'

As if on cue, Mr. Giles picked that exact moment to stride through the door, an effective counterpunch to her self-pitying thoughts. 'Right,' she corrected herself resignedly, 'my mistake.' After verifying that there was nothing to add to Willow's order, Tara excused herself to greet the professor at the entrance. He looked tired, as well-'This does seem to be the morning for it,' the waitress decided. 'I wonder if he saw a midnight movie, as well.'-his eyes had puffy rings underneath, and his hair was unkempt.

"Good morning, Rupert," she said. Tara still winced internally every time she called the man by his first name.

"It is improving," the professor agreed. "What would make it truly 'good' is a decent cup of tea. Would you be able to help?"

The waitress lead him toward a table in her section, flashing a smile at Willow as she passed. "Have you tried Yorkshire Gold?"

Mr. Giles thought a moment. "No, I don't believe so, but I'd be willing to try a-Miss Rosenberg." He spotted his student, and spared her a nod of his head.

"Hey, Professor Giles." Willow gave the man a wave, despite being only a couple feet away from him. "How's it going?"

"The sun continues to rise," he replied simply. "And yourself? I'd ask how you were finding the readings, but I understand that talk of homework is strictly forbidden on the weekends."

"No, no, they're fascinating!" Willow gushed. "I was wondering-do you think they believed that Osiris lived on the Earth, as a human, I mean, before becoming all afterlife-y and green skinned? And that part with Thoth was great; he seems like a pretty handy friend to have around. I didn't really get the bit with the cursed fish, though..."

Creases appeared in the professor's brow as he listened to the girl rattle off several more points. "Ah, Miss Rosenberg," he interjected when she paused for breath. "All this doesn't happen for a good many more chapters. You do understand the assignment was only for first section-three generations?"

"Uh huh. I know, but I wanted to know what happened next," Willow explained. "And when I skimmed ahead and saw Thoth's name there, I just had to keep reading."

"You know, I used to have a Tarot deck called 'The Book of Thoth,'" Tara volunteered, not exactly following the conversation, but hoping her comment was relevant.

"Fascinating. I'd never heard of that," Mr. Giles said. "Although, I suppose the link is not terribly surprising. During the Hellenistic period, when Greek language, culture, and mythology was spreading over a remarkably large region-ah, including Egypt, many worshipped Thoth and the Greek god Hermes as though they were the same deity. They credit him with the invention of mystical as well as Hermetic arts, and, and-and one could argue that the use of Tarot imagery for purposes of divination is, well, rather in line with Hermetic concepts, and certainly within the realm of mysticism."

Tara looked at Willow, who was beaming. "See?" the redhead said. "That's why his class is so interesting."

"Oh, yes, well, I'm glad you believe so." Professor Giles removed his spectacles and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, a nervous habit which Tara had noticed a week earlier. "With any luck, your enthusiasm might catch on with some of the other students. Perhaps you could convince Miss Summers to finish the readings on time, as well."

"Oh, I'm sure she will," Willow quickly assured him, leaping to her friend's defense. "She's probably working on that right now, in fact!"

"Whrt trme's it?" mumbled an utterly disheveled Buffy, lifting her head from beneath layers of blankets and at least two pillows.

Riley slid a bare arm under the bed and retrieved the alarm clock, which had been knocked off of the bedside table during the night. While there, his fingers brushed up against something else, and when he withdrew it he recognized Buffy's brassiere. "It's almost nine thirty," he informed the girl.

"Mrr." The blonde thwumped her head back into the pillows, and nuzzled closer to her boyfriend.

"Mm, yes, I'm sure she is," the professor replied. Judging by his expression, he was clearly not convinced.

"So, uh, Mr. Gi-um, Rupert," Tara began. "If you'd like to try the Yorkshire, I'll get you a cup as soon as I-oh, and I need to get you a menu, too."

"He can use this one," Willow offered, waving the menu that Tara had never collected. "Unless that goes against diner etiquette, that is."

"Oh my gosh, your order. I didn't-"

"That would be fine, thanks," the professor said, gratefully accepting the menu Willow handed to him.

"I'm just going to go to the kitchen, and put up your order, and get your tea, and...and generally try to reestablish some sense of w-workplace professionalism," Tara promised, shaking her head at herself. The action that was cut short by a yawn, which she unsuccessfully tried to hide with the back of her hand. "Okay, then," she added meekly. "Be right back."

Clutched tightly to her chest, Willow held the plastic bag containing the now-cold soup as well as some medicine she'd picked up at a convenience store. Oz hadn't been specific about his ailment, so she'd bought a bit of everything, ready to combat whichever symptoms presented themselves. She felt uneasy as she approached the house. She didn't actually know Oz's band members all that well; she had, of course, attended many of their gigs, and had met them all at one point or another, but they weren't exactly her best friends. In fact, it seemed quite the opposite was true; sometimes Willow felt like they viewed her as a distraction for Oz-competition for his attention and a challenge to his commitment to the band. Yet here she was, uninvited, standing in the driveway after taking the bus as close as she could, which was three quarters of a mile away, then walking the rest.

She could hear the deep, resonant bass line of a song as she inched closer to the door. She wondered whether the band was practicing, even without Oz. Or maybe Oz was already feeling better, and he was practicing with them; wanting to make her visit a surprise, Willow hadn't called the house to see how her boyfriend was doing before catching the bus. 'He did sound terrible on the phone, though, when I rang him yesterday,' she reminded herself. 'Plus, I've already got the soup and everything; it would be a shame to let it go to waste.' Nervously, she reached out and pushed the doorbell.

For several minutes, nothing happened other than Willow's heart doing calisthenics in her chest.

Frowning, she pressed the button again. There was a window next to the front door, so Willow placed her bag on the step, then leaned over the railing to check whether she could see anything inside. Cupping her hand over her eyes to block the glare from the sun, she pressed her face close to the glass, but saw only an empty kitchen with too many drained bottles and dirty dishes. When she pulled away from the rail, Willow realized it had left a rusty brown streak across her top. "Oh, just great," she grumbled. She wiped futilely at it, but managed only to stain her fingers, as well.

'Maybe the doorbell is broken?' she guessed. She tried it one last time while pressing her ear to the door, but couldn't hear anything over the din of the music. 'Or maybe they're downstairs practicing, and can't even hear it?' Willow had been to the house twice before, and she was familiar enough with the layout to know there was a pair of patio doors around back that were one level down, which they used to come and go more often than the front entrance; in fact, on both trips Oz hadn't even bothered knocking at the front, instead opting to go around for direct basement access. 'I guess it's worth a shot...'

She felt more than awkward, creeping through the side yard of a house she hadn't been invited to. It didn't help that the grass was wild and overgrown, giving the yard an unwelcoming look. A deflated basketball, some cinder blocks, and a white plastic bucket full of-'who knows what?' Willow concluded-were but a few of the discarded items she encountered. Around back, a wide concrete slab served as a simple patio. A set of once-white chairs circling a similarly stained table claimed the center, while a squat grill sat nearby. Its top had been left open, and a pool of murky rainwater had collected in the basin.

The music was louder at the back of the house, yet Willow could see now that it wasn't Oz's band playing. Through the glass doors, she had a clear view of the practice room, and the instruments remained untouched. She noticed Oz's guitar, leaning against an amplifier near the wall. An impressive drum set took up the majority of one half of the room, but the seat was empty, and a pair of sticks lay unused atop the snare drum.

Willow edged closer to the doors, trying to identify where the music was coming from, if not the music room, when a young man came into view. He was shirtless and tattooed, a pair of pajama bottoms being the only article of clothing she could discern, and he was carrying a massive plastic cup with a 7-Eleven logo emblazoned on its side. He spotted Willow through the patio doors, and a wide grin appeared on his face as he bounced toward her, sloshing water from his cup in the process.

"Oh, man, everything got so wet," he observed needlessly as the doors swung open, subjecting Willow's ears to the pounding music. "Hey, you're here-that's so cool!"

Willow blinked confusedly, and curled her nose at the pungent, skunky odor that wafted from the room. "Uh, hi, Greg," she said hesitantly. The young man looked entirely too excited to see her; it was an atypical greeting, compared to their earlier encounters. "Is Oz he-"

"Man, what happened to your-to you-" Greg reached out and rubbed his fingers over the rust stain on her shirt. "Oh, wow, that's soft..."

"Hey. Hey! Do you mind-" Willow swatted at his groping fingers with her free hand and backed off several feet. She thrust her bag between them with both hands, using it as a shield.

"Yeah, Oz isn't feeling too-oh, hey Oz, check it out! Your, uh, Will-uh..."

Willow spotted her boyfriend behind Greg. Oz had shuffled into the room from the hallway. His hair was matted, and the skin on his forehead and neck looked pale and glistened with a layer of sweat. Oz's shirt clung to him damply. He squinted against the light as he looked toward the door, and his mouth hung open when he saw Willow standing outside, holding a shopping bag in front of herself protectively.

"Pussywillow." Greg finally found the word he was searching for, and smiled a toothy, triumphant smile.

"Ah, shit," said Oz.

Continue to Constants Chapter Twenty-Three

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