Her brisk, determined steps through the overgrown grass did not slow.
"Will, c'mon. Hold up!"
She stepped over a toppled basketball hoop, and began her march down the driveway.
"Would you hang on a sec?" Oz's voice snapped. "Why are you even here? I told you I was sick-"
Willow spun. "Sick?!" The word oozed bitterness. Her cheeks were flushed, and her mouth remained open as her chin quavered. "What? A cold? How convenient," she spat, her voice catching on the last syllable.
Oz stepped forward, his hands raised to placate his girlfriend. "Will, I don't know what-"
"I'm not stupid, Oz!" The force of her rebuttal halted his advance. She continued, "What was it? Are you-are you high right now?"
Oz frowned, trying once more. "What? I-" Mid-sentence, he looked into Willow's accusing glare. In her eyes, he saw it, albeit masked by the hurtful expression: Willow's resolve face. His shoulders sank, and he sighed, "No, I'm not."
"What was it?" she repeated. "What did you take?" Why she needed this particular tidbit of information Willow wasn't sure. Morbid curiosity, perhaps.
Long seconds passed before Oz quietly admitted, "E."
Willow absorbed this and nodded, as though internally reaching some conclusion. She swapped the bag she carried to the other hand, pivoted slowly, and resumed her retreat toward the road.
Oz trotted after her. "Will, it wasn't-we just sat around in a room, played some music-"
"It's dangerous," the redhead remarked, not even sparing him a glance.
They were on the road, now. Oz, being barefoot, stepped cautiously around pieces of glass from a shattered bottle. "Okay, yeah, so it was probably pretty stupid," he pleaded, "but nothing happened."
"That's not the point!" Willow's outright anger shouldered seething aside and took the reins. Oz drew up short as she turned. Backpedaling, he stepped on a sharp pebble and hopped on the other foot, wincing. "How many times have you lied?" Willow yelled. "How many times have you blown off class? What about your commitments?"
"What, you mean the PanUM thing? It wasn't like-"
"Me, Oz!" Willow bellowed. Tears saturated with frustration began to trickle from her eyes. Her voice lowered. "I'm talking about me."
Oz was not immune to a crying girlfriend; his hand automatically reached out to rest upon Willow's arm. "Come on, Will. It was just a stupid thing with the guys. You're overreacting."
Willow blinked at him, beads of moisture transferring from one set of lashes to the other. "Am I?" she asked quietly. "I'm trying, Oz. I'm trying really hard to see this as something other than you lying to me-you choosing to do drugs with your band mates, backing out of plans with me, and lying to me. Can you make it look like something else?" Her eyes were pleading. "Can you?"
The musician shifted his weight uncomfortably, then back again when it put too much pressure on his still-smarting foot. He couldn't think of anything to say to that. Willow stepped backward, easing away from him. His fingers slipped from her shoulder, falling to his side. She was going to walk away, he knew. He had to say something. "Why did you come here?" he asked, although he knew it didn't matter.
"I came to take care of you." Willow looked down at the bag, and held it out to him. "Here."
Oz accepted the offering, and when the girl began to walk away, he tried one last entreaty. "Will..."
"No, Oz." She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I have more important people to take care of, right now."
"You have reached the voice mailbox of...Elizabeth Summers...If you would like to leave a recorded message, please begin speaking after the tone...BEEP."
"Hey, Buffy. It's me. Uh, so listen...um...some stuff happened this morning with Oz. I don't really have time to get into it right now, what with this being a recording and all, but I-uh, I just wanted you to know I'm heading home for a bit. I'm not sure if I'll be back tonight or really early tomorrow-you know, before class. So either way, don't freak if you get back to the dorm room late and find me missing. So...yeah. Oh, and check the answering machine, too; Xander left a message last night about his uncle. I'll definitely try to see him while I'm up there, to make sure he's okay. Um, right, so if you get this, and if it's not too late, can you give me a call back? Otherwise...well, I guess I'll see you at some crazy hour before class. Uh...bye."
Part of Tara's mind continued to replay Willow's departure long after the girl had left the diner. When it had arrived, Willow had bolted her meal quickly. Gathering her jacket and the carry-out soup, she had breezed by Tara on her way out. After a moment of awkward hesitation-was a customer hugging an employee at their place of work unprofessional?-the redhead had simply reached out to touch Tara's arm briefly. She smiled, and Tara found herself reflexively grinning back.
"So I'll see you around?" Tara asked, to which Willow nodded.
"Uh huh. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'll be getting a craving for Greek food a lot more often than I have in the past. But, uh, you've got my phone number, too, right? So you can call any time you want, you know. Then we can get together and...do whatever. There are always things going on around the campus."
Tara agreed. "Sure. Yeah, I could do that-oh, do you have mine?" A look of confusion crossed Willow's face, so she clarified, "I know I don't have a cell phone, but...I mean, there's the land line at the apartment. At m-my apartment."
Willow furrowed her brow and opened her mouth to say something-'What did she want to ask?' Tara wondered-then seemed to reconsider. Finally, she said, "Yeah, I do have it."
Tara jotted some digits down on her order pad and passed the slip of paper to the other girl. "Here's Faith's too, in case-you know, if I'm there."
Handling the note as if it were the most precious artifact in the world, Willow tucked it securely into an empty slot in her keychain wallet. After one more round of goodbyes, she pushed open the restaurant's door and headed outside into the early morning.
It was now half an hour later, yet still Tara kept stealing glances at the door, in hopes that she would catch sight of Willow's fiery red hair appearing in the entryway. This fact didn't surprise her; ever since she met Willow, Tara had had been doing a lot of thinking about her new friend, and she had reached several conclusions, the first of which being that she would undoubtedly spend every Willowless moment hoping for the girl to suddenly appear.
There was another idea upon which her thoughts converged: that she almost certainly was gay. This was not a particularly striking revelation for Tara; instead, it confirmed a nagging suspicion she had been carrying for years. She had found, when the notion took hold-and take hold it did, the very moment Willow's lips had brushed up against her own, when the girl's arms had circled her and drawn Tara into her lap-that it did not frighten her. More than anything, she had felt relieved. Not only did the pieces fit-her utter lack of interest in the boys at school, her tendency to mentally swap the sex of the hero in books she read, her occasional off-color musing while swimming with Hannah-but the picture they formed depicted something more liberating than she had initially feared. For years, she had worried that she was broken, stunted by her father's treatment, and that all men would forever bear his face. But now, she was certain. It wasn't a fear of men: it was a desire for women.
'A woman,' she corrected herself, her gaze lingering at the door one second longer. 'Willow...'
Releasing a pent-up sigh, Willow closed her cell phone with her thumb. Buffy's number went to voice mail, and of course neither of her parents were at the house. How natural that they'd both be gone; the fact that other humans often habited their homes during weekends had little bearing on the whims of the Rosenbergs. She briefly considered calling Mrs. Summers, before realizing that she would be arriving at the street in a few minutes, and that it would be just as easy to check Xander's house first.
She shoved the phone back into her pocket and commenced staring out the taxi's window. The yards whipped by on the other side of the glass. 'Huh,' she thought, 'I've only been gone a month, and my neighborhood is already starting to feel like somebody else's home.' Her fingers fidgeted with the metal loops on her keychain, and without any real conscious thought, withdrew the folded slip of paper with Faith's number. 'Tara gave me her number. Well, somebody else's number, I suppose. But still.' Figuring it would be a good idea to save the number in her phone, she reached into her pocket once again.
The phone vibrated loudly the moment her fingers touched it, startling her. In its recoil, her elbow smacked the taxi door sharply, causing the cabbie to give her a dark glance in the rear view mirror. Shamefaced, the girl tugged out her phone. 'Tara?' she hoped. 'No, it's probably Buffy.' A quick check of the display revealed the actual caller: Ozzy Osbourne. She had thought the entry was clever at the time; now, it aggravated her. 'Oz...' Frowning, she pressed the button that would send the call through to voicemail.
"So, can I get you anything else?" Tara asked the professor. She'd finally managed to pull herself away from the entryway, once she remembered she had actual, tangible customers to help.
Mr. Giles held up a plastic stand that sat upon the table. "One of these would be divine, thank you," he said. A card in the stand showed several desserts in a mouthwatering display. The man's finger rested underneath a picture of a sinful chocolate fudge brownie, topped with ice cream, chopped walnuts, and drizzled raspberry sauce.
"Oh my goodness," Tara practically drooled, "doesn't that look delicious? I think that every time I see that picture, which is-you know, quite a few times per day."
"You've sampled it?"
The waitress shook her head. "Not yet, actually. I keep meaning to, but every time I remember it's on the menu, I'm already too stuffed to even attempt it."
"Couldn't you sneak one in, now?" Mr. Giles asked.
The image that flashed through Tara's mind, that of a tiny Rupert Giles perched upon her shoulder, wearing a red suit-Tweed, of course-and wielding a pitchfork, left her unsure whether to laugh or be very frightened. 'Why did I give him a goatee?' she asked herself. Shaking the thought away, Tara replied, "Um, it's probably not a good idea, while I'm on shift."
"Well, know that I'll feel some measure of guilt," the professor offered, "indulging my sweet tooth while you have to miss out."
Tara chuckled. "I promise I'll look the other way."
"Here we go," the cabbie announced, as he pulled the taxi over to the side of the road and eased on the break. "Seventeen twenty Ollever Drive." He swung open his door and stepped out onto the street, stretching his legs, then walked around to help Willow out of the vehicle.
"Thanks," she said. "What's the fare?"
The driver peered through the window at the meter. "Fifty two and a quarter."
After a quick mental calculation, Willow withdrew a trio of twenties from her wallet and passed them to the man. "Here you go. Please keep the change."
"Thank you very much," he cordially replied. "And here you go. In case you need a ride back, there's the number for my dispatcher. Just give a call if you need anything." He presented Willow with an embossed business card, which she accepted and pocketed.
As the driver returned to his seat and pulled away from the curb, Willow turned toward the house. "Good thing I stopped at an ATM," she breathed, unsure whether the cabbie would have been able to accept payment by credit card. The fact that she had remembered to do so felt significant to her. Part of her wondered at the presence of thought she had shown in preparing for the trip; after walking away from Greg's, she had wanted to let anger and despair take over-to have it cloud her mind and numb her capacity for responsible action. It would have been easy enough to do. Hadn't her boyfriend of nearly two years been blowing her off for god knows how long in favor of smoking up and popping pills with his band mates? Didn't she have every right to want to throw a tantrum, then curl up into a ball in bed and sleep until tomorrow? And yet, once Oz was out of sight, she found herself viewing the whole affair with a cool detachment. Maybe it hadn't yet had time to sink in-maybe her system was still processing the events. 'Maybe,' she thought, 'I've got other people to think about.' Her brain automatically filled in, 'Like Xander,' but her heart cried a different name.
Tara slid the dish with the brownie sundae onto the table with a flourish. "Tada!"
Mr. Giles slowly rotated the plate in order to admire the dessert from many different angles. He nodded, clearly impressed, but when he spoke, it was on a different topic. "Before I forget," he began, "Miss Rosenberg had mentioned to me some time ago that that artwork there is your own?" He used his spoon to point out first one painting, then the other.
Despite knowing her paintings were the only objects in the diner that could be considered artwork, Tara nonetheless traced the line of the utensil to the frames hanging on the wall. "Y-yes, that's right."
"Tara, they're fantastic. I'm very impressed." His gaze traveled from the paintings back to the waitress' face. "You've never taken classes?"
"Well, sure, I-I mean, the normal art class in high school."
The professor scooped up a luscious spoonful of brownie, yet didn't bring it to his mouth. "You've got quite a talent," he stated.
Tara continued to look at the paintings, and her expression transformed into one of longing. "They're pretty old. I mean I-I haven't really painted anything since...well, it's been about four years, I think."
"You lost interest?" Mr. Giles asked, lowering the uneaten bite back to the plate.
The corner of Tara's mouth twitched as she studied the images. "I don't know. It's-it's not that I don't want to. When I try I just..." she trailed off and closed her eyes. When they opened, she focused on the professor, instead. "It's like I can't think of anything. When I painted those ones it was like..." A part of Tara was startled to realize she was about to share this part of herself with an adult. "It was personal. I could-I could see exactly what the painting was supposed to look like, even when it was just a blank canvas stretched over a frame. All I had to do was fill in what I already knew was there, if that makes any sense." While she spoke, Tara busied herself gathering glasses and plates from an adjacent table onto her tray. "Now a blank canvas is just a blank canvas."
Mr. Giles nodded understandingly and turned his attention back to one of the paintings, a well-lit portrait on the near wall. "Is it a self-portrait?"
Tara answered without looking. "Hm? Oh, n-no. My mother. Uh, in her garden."
"I see. You look remarkably similar to your mother, then."
'Please, Helen...just a quick one. You don't know how lonely it is...'
A crash of shattering glass tore into the vacuum of sound surrounding her, and all at once the world lurched into motion, and background noises filtered through her senses-whispers from the diners, who pointed at the waitress and giggled amongst themselves; the rush of steady traffic from the road outside, scraping silverware against dishes, a sink running somewhere in the kitchen. Mr. Giles was standing, looking concerned. Tara blinked, staring down at the glass which had slipped from her fingers. It was ruined, existing now as five large pieces and dozens of tiny ones. A puddle of water spread outward from the shards, carrying with it several nearly-melted ice cubes. One spun lazily as it inched across the floor.
"Tara? Hey. Tara Maclay." Fingers snapped before her eyes, breaking her trance. She jolted, staring wide-eyed at Andrew, who had approached from behind. "You okay?" he asked.
"I dropped a glass," she said unnecessarily. "Um, t-towels." She practically fled toward the kitchen.
Andrew watched her disappear, then, with a placating smile for the nearby customers, he knelt to clean up the larger bits of glass, cradling them in his apron.
Before she could respond, Willow found herself wrapped in a bear hug. This one was particularly bear-like, in fact, due to the week of growth on Xander's face. His whiskers prickled her neck, and she squirmed from his grasp as tactfully as she could. "Hey, Xander." she greeted.
A goofy grin remained plastered on his face. "So what's a thriving academic such as yourself doing round these parts?" he asked.
Willow's only answer was an amused expression and a question of her own. "How are you holding up?"
"Peachy. Got the house to myself for a few hours, since the folks-both of whom, might I point out, are completely insane-decided to spend the afternoon at the hospital. And I can't even begin to tell you how happy that makes me." Xander stood aside. "But come in, come in. Make yourself at home." He followed Willow when she entered, and grabbed an open bag of pretzels as he passed by the couch. "How's school? How's life? Tell me everything, Will."
Willow shrugged off her jacket and hung it up at the foot of the banister. "Hey, now. I came all the way out here for you," she insisted. "This is supposed to be Xander-time."
"No, no, no. If that's true, then trust me: there is nothing I'd rather do than listen to you. You have no idea how starved I've been for anything resembling...well, I hesitate to say normality. Come on, I'm sure you've got tales of college hijinks." Now in the kitchen, Xander rooted through the fridge and pulled out two cans of grape soda. He tossed one to Willow, who bobbled it once before securing it. She peered at the top skeptically, then placed the can on the counter.
"You don't want to talk about Uncle Rory?" she asked.
The young man shook his head with certainty. "That's all anyone has been talking about. I need a break, Will. Tell me something...you know, something good." Popping the top of his soda, Xander brought it quickly to his lips, sucking up the fizz that bubbled out of the hole. He sank down into one of the chairs surrounding the kitchen table, and pushed the opposing seat out with his foot.
"Well, good, hm?" Willow sat daintily, pushing the Sunday comics away and drumming her fingertips on the tabletop. "Oh, well, our team took second place at the PanUM games, yesterday. Buffy's and mine. That was pretty neat. And I did it! Athletics! Not that I was really any good, but I was part of a team, and-and-and hey! I know enough people to field a team. Well, half of a team anyway; I guess there were a few people I didn't know that well."
"You see?" Xander commented. "There you go. You can't help but love the Willster. I knew you wouldn't have any problems making friends on campus." He thumped his chest to clear a bubble of carbonation. "And Buffy? What's this I hear about a tall, dark, and handsome?"
"Riley's not really that dark..."
"Ah ha! So he does have a name. I was starting to wonder. Buff's been all with the tight lips about the new beau. What's your take on him?" Xander asked eagerly. "Any incriminating evidence?"
"Ummm, I don't really think I can answer that. I mean, they've been dating a week, and I've only seen him a couple times. They spend most of their time together...elsewhere. At the fraternity, I suppose, or else around campus somewhere."
'Uh oh,' thought Willow, 'I walked right into that one.' She never understood exactly why Xander felt the need to frown upon every potential partner any of his friends had. Perhaps it was bitterness due to his long-standing record of being single; misery loves company, after all. Or maybe he worried that when his friends began dating, they'd take off and leave him behind. At first, Willow thought it was just Buffy; for a brief period when they'd met, Xander had coveted the girl, and had pestered Willow endlessly for inside information on their new friend. When Buffy had turned a blind eye to his advances, then spun around and dated Liam, Xander had swallowed a sour pill. But it turned out it wasn't only the blonde's romantic life that made Xander's jealous streak apparent; he had reacted similarly when Oz had made his affections known to Willow. Ultimately, they had ended up on friendlier terms, but there had been several weeks where Willow had been forced to bite her tongue every time Xander had made a snide remark about the musician.
"What do you mean, the fraternity? Is Buffy dating a frat-boy? Riley of Betta Tappa Kegga?"
'Ugh. There it is.' She sighed. "You know, I don't really-you should ask her, if it's questions about Riley. He seems pretty nice, and Buffy says he's a gentleman. That's all I know."
"Well, you know what they say. It's always the nice ones, right?" Xander looked for Willow to agree with him, but she merely shrugged noncommittally.
'I'm not even sure what that means,' she thought to herself.
"Well, speaking of gentlemen with my favorite ladies, what's the news with Oz? Last time we talked you didn't exactly make it sound like the best of times."
She had seen the question coming from far away. Groaning, Willow laid her head in her hands on the tabletop. "That," she answered, "is a long story."
The setting sun had long since dropped below the tops of the campus buildings, and the sky was growing darker with each passing minute. Tara's heavy bag swung awkwardly against her legs as she crossed the parking lot of her apartment complex. She shifted the strap that dug uncomfortably into her neck, making her feel all the more like a criminal about to be hanged. She peered up at the windows, uncertain which was her own. 'Maybe I'll hang something pretty out one of the windows,' she thought. 'Assuming I live through the night.' She had been dreading this moment, and had been letting it simmer for hours. When her shift had ended at four o'clock, Tara had hurried over to Faith's to pack up her things. The she sat on the sofa for over two hours, drowning in her own anxiety. 'The longer you wait, the worse it will get.' She had finally driven this point deep enough into her brain to spur her body into action.
Never had a building been so dreadfully unwelcoming. 'Breathe in.' She took a tentative step forward. 'Breathe out.' Another. 'Pull here.' Tara opened the building door and inched into the stairwell, tugging her bag through as the door tried to pinch it. She eyed the stairs. 'Now up to the gallows.' Interesting. She hadn't realized the building could generate stairs overnight; there seemed to be twice as many as she remembered.
She stared at the apartment door, wondering whether she should knock or simply let herself in. Imagining the heart-pounding moments that would surely follow knocking, she shuddered. 'No, best to get it over with.' First, she tested the handle for heat. Then, she turned it and shuffled inside.
The scene was nothing out of the ordinary for an evening. Donald Maclay, Sr. and son occupied two chairs at the dining room table. They were sharing a pizza, which was still in the box in the middle of the table. Both men looked up when Tara entered. Donny's eyed widened, and immediately shot to his father. Mr. Maclay blinked once, expressionless, then returned his attention to the meal. "Donny, would you please pass the parmesan?" he asked.
It had taken the better part of the day for Willow to spill everything to Xander. She had been reluctant to get started on the topic of Oz, but Xander had pulled out all the stops-begging and pleading, playing the "poor Xander was left behind while his friends gallivant at college" and "best friends can tell each other anything" cards masterfully at precisely the right moments, and even at times resorting to bribery. Many puppy-dog eyes, deep, heartfelt sighs, and one gleeful Snoopy Dance later, Willow had finally started at the beginning. The conversation happened in bits and pieces; at one point, they'd even taken a break to watch a movie together. When Xander's parents returned home from the hospital, the two of them had decided to continue their talk outside, put on their jackets, and gone for a walk.
"Wow, I don't know what to say," Xander admitted as they circled the unimpressive playground at the end of the street for the fifth time. "That...really sucks, Will."
"It wasn't the best pampering ever, no," Willow agreed.
"So...what do you think would have happened if he hadn't...you know, if you didn't end up walking into...uh, that?"
"You mean with the soup?" Willow asked, confused.
"I mean the whole thing. The Talk. The way he'd been acting."
"Well, I probably wouldn't have gone into it, if he was really sick. I told myself I'd mention needing to talk with him about something, but-you know, when he was feeling better."
"So, you would have chickened out?"
Willow narrowed her eyes. "We chickens prefer, 'choosing the right moment.'"
"Mm. I hear what you're saying, Will, but...well, from what you told me, that's not the kind of thing you should be waiting for a window of opportunity to bring up, you know? You were unhappy, he was being a shitty boyfriend-" At the shocked looked from Willow, Xander raised his hands. "Hey, I'm sorry, but he was. Putting you last in things is not going to win him any awards in my book. It was upsetting you, and stuff like that you can't just sit on. It'll rot the whole thing from the inside out. You've got to deliver that ultimatum, right? Shape up or ship out."
Willow stared blankly at her friend.
"Yeah, I know, the guy who's never had a girlfriend dishing out relationship advice. Well, I've listened to enough people griping about theirs to be able to piece together what works and what doesn't. Plus those magazines in all the bathrooms at Buffy's house have some pretty good articles."
He didn't even get a smile for the joke. Willow was lost in thought, and after several moments, she said, "Xander, I..." A full ten seconds passed while she found the second half of her sentence. Xander waited. "...the way Oz was acting...I mean, before this morning..." Willow seemed frustrated with the difficulty she was having with the thought, so they slowed their pace near a set of swings and took a seat next to each other. "The reason I needed to talk with Oz wasn't just because of Oz."
"Okay," Xander said.
"It was...it was my own stuff, too." Willow rocked backward in her seat, her legs much too long to get a real swing going.
"What kind of stuff?"
Again, Willow's answer was slow in coming. "I don't think I'm in love with him."
Xander considered this. "You thought that this morning?"
Willow shook her head. "Before that."
"Well, when did you first realize it?"
Willow stilled her swing and stared up the empty street. She took a deep breath. "When I met this girl, and felt more strongly toward her than I did toward Oz."