Return to Constants Chapter Twenty-Three


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.

To Willow, it felt like a full minute had passed, yet Xander was silent. He had on what Willow referred to as his Poker face, an expressionless fašade that masked the grinding gears of his thoughts; never had she wished more fervently for the power to read minds! At last, Xander's head swiveled away from her, and he stared at the playground. His mouth opened once, stilled, then snapped shut again, lips twisting at the hesitation. 'Oh, crud. I broke him,' Willow chastised herself. 'Okay, come on. Help him out. Say something to break the silence. Uh...' She took a breath. "So-"

Xander picked that exact moment to speak, which was just as well, since Willow hadn't had the faintest idea where her sentence was heading. "Can you...I just want to be absolutely clear, here. You met a...who did you meet?"

"Her name is Tara."

Her oldest friend nodded. "Okay.'re comparing her-uh, Oz. In the area of feeling strongly."

"And she's winning," Willow confirmed.

"It sounded like...I mean, just from what you've been saying every time we talk..."

Each time he trailed off, Willow could see a flicker of-'what? Worry?'-cross Xander's face. Usually, he didn't have trouble with words; Willow knew the only reason for stalled sentences was nerves. 'He's scared that he'll say something that'll make me mad...This won't do.' She stood. "Okay, hang on. Time out." Willow scanned the edge of the playground. "Do you remember 'Secrets?'"

"Huh? Which secret?"

Willow shook her head. "No, 'Secrets.' The game. Remember? We used to-"

"Right." Xander chuckled nervously. "With the magic geode stone?"

"Exactly." She found what she was looking for: a rock roughly the size of a golf ball. "Here we go." She retrieved the stone and wiped it clean on her already stained shirt. Passing it to her friend, she explained, "Now you can say whatever you want-whatever you're really thinking-and the magic stone will prevent anything bad from happening."

Xander eyed the chunk of rock dubiously. "Uh, you know, Will...they have special places for people like you," he teased. He didn't, Willow noticed, get rid of the stone. This was good, since she fully planned on using it during her own revelations, which, admittedly, no longer seemed so tightly bound. In a way, dealing with Xander's nervousness was making her own more manageable. "Where were we?" Xander asked, while Willow returned to her swing.

She thought a moment. "It sounded like something, every time we talked."

"Mm. Right." The young man juggled the stone from one hand to the other as he spoke. "So every time we've talked over this last month or so, you've...well, you've griped about Oz a lot. And I'm with you on that. But I guess I'm kind of sounds like Oz is losing, instead of the other way around, you know?"


"Let's back up a step," Xander suggested. "This girl-"


"Tara. This Tara. How are you...I mean, we're comparing feelings...but Oz is your boyfriend. And Tara know what I mean? It's different...scales, or something. How exactly are we comparing the two?"

Willow searched thoroughly for a clear explanation. "Well, first of all-uh, whether Oz is my boyfriend is kind of up in the air, after this morning," she began. "And Tara....I guess I, um...well, I like her."

"And we're not talking the 'hey, new friend, we click' type of liking, I take it?"

"Not just that, no. But that, too. Uh, can I...?" The redhead extended her hand expectantly, and Xander placed the stone into her palm. She liked the weight of it, and let her eyes fall to it as she asked, "You remember when Oz first know, talking with me?"

"After computer class?"

"Yup. And we-you and I-talked about it at length over the next few weeks. About him liking me. And I knew. I could tell he wasn't just being New Friend friendly."

"You were terrified," Xander remembered.

"Well, yeah," Willow said defensively. "It's not like I had a long line of people thinking romantic thoughts about me, you know? I didn't know how I was supposed to act. But that's not the point."

Xander waited, listening.

Wedging the magic stone between her fingers, Willow continued. "It's the same way with Tara. She likes me. I can tell. There are lots of little things."

"Okay. I can get that." He opted not to share the conflicting emotions that welled in him at the thought of another girl lusting after his best friend. At once, he felt both possessive and curious. "But...but what about your side of things? I mean, you've never mentioned, uh...well, you said feeling strongly. So...explain?"

"I have a crush on her. Or did, at first, and now maybe something else."

"We're still talking Oz-like feelings? Not to keep bringing him up while you two are, uh, struggling, know, just so I know we're on the same page, here."

Willow squeezed the stone. "I-I want her." She peeked at Xander, who was succeeding at showing nothing but concern. The corner of his mouth twitched. "It's not the same, no. I mean, I doubt it will ever be exactly the same, given two different people, you know? And it's not like I'm still the same person that I was when Oz first showed interest, either."

"No, sure, that's true," Xander agreed. "I just wonder...uh..." He sighed and reached out, deftly removing the stone from Willow's hands. "Do you think, maybe...that you like this new person because stuff with Oz is...not so good?"

"What? No! That's not what I'm saying at all." Willow looked miffed.

"Hey. Hey." Xander held the rock between them defensively. "I'm just saying ...the timing is there. And you said she likes you, so maybe, uh, you know..."

The redhead took a deep breath. "Okay. Sure, there is some part of me that is excited that somebody likes me, and that piques my interest. Curious, right? And maybe now...with Oz and's nice to meet somebody who does seem excited to be around me, since Oz most definitely does not. But it's not like that's the whole of why I like her, Xander. It couldn't just be anybody; it's her, specifically."

"Mm." Thin lines appeared on Xander's brow. "So here's where I state the obvious: she's...well, she's a she."

Willow sighed and looked down at her lap. "You noticed that too, hm?"

"So." Xander picked his words carefully. "You're telling me that you like a girl." When his friend didn't deny this, he asked, "What does it mean?"

"It doesn't mean any-well, I guess...I don't know what it means. It means I like Tara. And it means that...that I'm not really at the point where I'm thinking about what else it means. Except that the not thinking about what thinking about a girl means doesn't mean that I'm not thinking about...what thinking about Tara means. Do you know what I mean?"

Xander blinked confusedly and shook his head. "Will, I couldn't have any less idea what you mean."

She tried again. "I like Tara. I really like her." Willow looked to Xander for confirmation that he understood the gravity of her words. He nodded, so she continued. "Right now, I'm trying to focus less on the 'she's a girl' stuff, and more on the fact that...I don't think-no, I've never been...well, attracted to somebody like this. I mean, when Oz first...when we met, and I realized he liked me, it was new and exciting and...okay, yes, kind of frightening at first. But I thought about sitting with him at lunch, and walking around school together, and talking on the phone in the evening..."

"You think about that stuff with Tara?" Xander guessed.

"I-I do, and that's...that's a whole 'nother thing. But then my mind kind of turns a sharp corner, and-and then...and then all I can think about is kissing her again." Her words came out in a torrent, and she suddenly realized she wasn't holding the magic stone, any longer.

"Uh, I take that to mean that...there was kissing in-did I miss something earlier in the conversation?"

"We were at a party," Willow explained. "Remember the party I went to? There were a bunch of people playing a game, and kissing, and we were supposed to kiss. Or, well, she was supposed to pick somebody to kiss, and she picked me, and then we kissed. And yes, I told Oz about the game," she said hurriedly, cutting off Xander's question. He nodded and let her continue. "It was amazing, Xander. I can't even describe And-and now I think about it all the time. Like...all the time."

"So you spend nearly every waking moment thinking about kissing a girl," Xander said with a smirk. "Now there's something I can relate to. But, Will. That's-this is a new conversation, for us. How are you doing?"

The redhead twisted side to side in her swing, causing the chains to creak and groan. "Okay, I guess. Confused. But giddy, too. A little overloaded, you know? I keep thinking my brain needs a vacation, but then every time I think that I just get this mental image of flopping into a hammock or something...and Tara's always there."

"That's a pretty big thing, Will. I don't know...I'm not sure what exactly I'm supposed to say here. Not in the bad silence way or anything. It sounds really good, you know...that you have somebody you can think about that with who, from what you've said, seems to like you back." He shifted his weight on the swing to a more comfortable position. "I'd restate my concern about the overlap with the Oz situation, but I'm sure you've covered that pretty thoroughly in that brain of yours. What about-have you said anything to Buffy?"

Willow looked shamefaced. "Not yet," she confessed. "I haven't figured out how to, uh, best approach that, yet."

"Oof," Xander winced. "As much pride as I feel for being your go-to guy, here, I don't think the Buff is going to like being passed over for the position."

"Yeah," Willow sighed miserably. "That's a spiky pit of a conversation, and the bridge across it needs to be built just so." She underlined her last word by reaching out an open palm, and Xander grinned as he dropped the stone into it. "Thank you, Xander."

"For the rock?" he joked.

"For being so much easier to talk to."

Donald Maclay, Sr. took another slice of pizza and coated it liberally with grated cheese and crushed red pepper flakes. While chewing a bite, he refilled his water glass from a pitcher. His casual grace made even more glaring the obvious discomfort of his children; Tara stood just inside the shelter of the doorway, having moved only to shift her bag to the other shoulder, and Donny sat ramrod straight in his chair. Tara's chest began to tighten; it hurt when she swallowed.

"Tare. Hey!" Donny finally broke the silence. He pushed his chair away from the table to stand. "Have you had anything to eat? I could get you a-"

"Sit!" his father snapped. The boy's face paled and he quickly returned to his seat. Mr. Maclay brought a napkin from his lap to his mouth, dabbed at his lips, then carefully folded the material and placed it on the table beside his place. "Your sister can eat with the family," he decreed, "when she decides to act like a member of it." His voice was even and crystal clear despite the hushed tones he had shifted into. 'Maybe it's because nothing else on Earth is making any sound at the moment,' Tara thought.

"Being a part of this family," her father continued, "means doing her part to pitch in. To help support us. It doesn't mean leaving a twelve-year-old child at home alone for hours every day." Tara's mind protested, 'He's thirteen!' Donny stared at his plate. "It doesn't mean staying out all night without permission, without even leaving an emergency contact number. It doesn't mean shrugging off the household chores, leaving them for her father, who has been working all day to keep a roof over our heads, and her brother, who should be spending his time studying instead of cleaning the bathroom or folding laundry."

Her father had always assumed Donny would have his shot at college, speaking of it with the same nonchalance that had dismissed Tara's own academic future. 'I can't fault that,' Tara figured. 'His grades have always been better than mine; maybe he could get a scholarship.'

Tara froze, mid-thought, when her father's eyes finally lifted to study her, beginning well south of her face. "It's not enough that she expects me to support the family and look after both children." At that, he locked gazes with his daughter. "Now I'm supposed to worry about one child, who's left at home alone after school, and the other, who's God knows where. I'm expected to make the meals, do the laundry, and keep the apartment from falling apart. And why must I do this, Donny?" With his eyes no longer paralyzing her, Tara could breathe again.

Donny's face turned three shades paler when his father's focus shifted. "Um, because she was gone?"

"Because this is my family," Mr. Maclay said. "Because your sister would rather be off gallivanting with her new college friends than doing her part to help us." He pushed away from the table and stood, taking his plate and glass with him. "Please excuse me; I've gone and lost my appetite."

He carried his dishes into kitchen, and the children heard the faucet being run and the dishwasher being loaded. Moments later, the sound of ice tumbling into a glass was a prelude to the distinct creak of the liquor cabinet door.

'This is going to be a long night,' Tara realized, finally lowering her bag to the floor.

Twisting and tugging the swings to get them close enough to hug made for an awkward position, yet Willow and Xander managed. Willow's head rested on his shoulder, and together they watched the lights in the yards lining the street flicker on, one by one, as the glow on the horizon dimmed. Xander continued idly stroking his fingers through the copper strands of her hair even as the neighborhood succumbed to night.

"So will I get to meet her?" he asked at length.

Willow blinked out of her comfortable daze. "Hm?"

"Your mystery woman."

"Tara? She's not a mystery."

"She is to me, at the moment," Xander pointed out. "When I come down with the Summers gang for Family Week or whatever it's called, do you think she'll be around?"

"Think who'll be around?" a voice asked.

The two friends hadn't been paying much attention to the jogger who was making a circuit of the playground, so her approach from the side caught them by surprise. Even more surprising was the jogger's identity.

"Hey, Dawnie!" Willow exclaimed.

Seeing Buffy's younger sister-it was hard for Willow to think of her as Buffy's little sister anymore, since she now towered over the older girl-dressed in track pants and a long sleeved tee shirt felt like a jarring contrast; for the past few years, the teenager had been going through a fashion phase, suddenly caring which stores provided her wardrobe and which brands adorned her body. She had begun using the word 'accessorize' routinely. Willow had heard Mrs. Summers complain about how picky her youngest child had become, a choosiness exacerbated by her rapid growth, which necessitated frequent trips to the outlets.

A younger Dawn had looked up to Willow; while Buffy always had demanded her sister make herself scarce when friends came over, Willow and Xander made it a point to offer Dawn the attention she craved, so the teenager thought the world of them. But the shift in attitude that accompanied Dawn's newfound sense of style altered the dynamic between her and Willow; suddenly, she had too many of her own concerns to care what her boring older sister and company were up to.

But now, standing with her hands on her hips and drawing deep, oxygen replenishing breaths, Dawn looked curious. "Who's going to be around?" she repeated.

Xander leaned back in his swing, reclaiming his shoulder from Willow, and inclined his head away from her, clearly offering her the first chance to respond.

"Oh. Uh, just somebody at college. A friend of mine," she explained.

The teen's lips formed a small circle, and her hands became more animated. "Oh my god! Are you playing matchmaker?"


Xander jumped in. "No, no. She's not trying to find me a good college woman. Although, Will..."

Finally catching the girl's meaning, Willow shook her head quickly. "Oh, uh uh. Nothing like that."

"Mm. Well, it's good to see you, anyway." With arms outstretched, Dawn inched toward Willow, who stood and gave her a hug of greeting. "What're you doing home on a-" She paused a second to do a quick mental check. "-yeah, on a Sunday evening? Don't you have class tomorrow?"

Xander patted Willow's back. "She's just looking out for her bestest bud. Plus, you know how it goes: putting up with the rigors of academia for days on end-she must have missed this place something fierce." His tone was teasing.

"Well, kind of," Willow chuckled, playing along. "After all, there's no place like home." She directed her next question to Dawn. "What are you doing out here?"

The teen shrugged. "Just jogging."

"Ah, yes," Xander said. "Doing her part to fulfill of the Summers women's long-standing life goals: making the Xand-man feel like a fat and lazy schlub. And what a fine job you're doing, at that."

"I joined the school's track team," Dawn clarified.

Willow perked up. "Dawnie, that's terrific! It's always a good idea to get involved with your school, one way or another, be it taking part in one of the sports teams or-or-well, supplemental instruction courses, for those of us without the coordination or the lung capacity." She smiled wryly.

"Or cracking wise in the back of the classroom," Xander added. "You know, wherever your talents happen to lie. Although, in this case I think the motivation is one part school spirit and nine parts Clint Sullivan, hurdler extraordinaire."

At this, the teenager's eyes flew to Willow's friend. "Xander! You promised you wouldn't tell!"

"I said I wouldn't tell Buffy," Xander pointed out.

"Who's Clint Sullivan?" Willow asked.

"Nobody," Dawn answered. Her face, already flushed from her run, darkened a shade.

"Well, that's not what I hear," Xander countered. "According to one anonymous source, our Mr. Sullivan has, and I quote, 'Dawn drooling over him like a lovesick puppy.'"

The teenager balled her hands into fists. "Oh. My. God. Sarah is so going to get her butt kicked, tomorrow." She shook her head and assumed a haughty expression. "Well, I was going to invite you guys over for dinner, if you hadn't already eaten, but now I think I'll just ask Willow." At Xander's crestfallen expression, she added, "I'm kidding, I'm kidding; you're welcome to come, too."

"Thank God. I don't think I could handle another night of Chinese takeout. No, you don't understand," he insisted when Willow raised an eyebrow. "Dinner with the parental units as company is bad enough on its own, but if I have to eat even one more carton of pork fried rice, I'm going to pork fried puke."

"Ugh, thanks for that visual," Willow said, her nose scrunching up. She looked at Dawn. "You're sure your mom won't mind? Will there be enough for us, too?"

"Oh, don't worry about that. I'm cooking."

Willow's stomach turned over fitfully. "Oh. Uh. Great. Thanks, Dawnie. Have I got time to swing by my house, first? I should check in, there." She mentally added, '-and maybe get some Pepto-Bismol.'

"Sure thing. Maybe like one hour?" Dawn included Xander in the question.

They both nodded, and Xander asked, "Um, what's on the menu?"

Dawn stood proudly. "I call it Stroganoff Surprise!"

While sitting Indian-style on her bed, Tara drew another card off the top of the deck and examined it. A pair of coneflower blossoms topped a thin stem in the foreground of the picture. Behind this, a woman in a simple white dress, her hair caught by a breeze, dipped her right foot into a shallow pool of water. She carried another of the flowers; its purple bloom matched the sash at her waist. In the distance, verdant mountains rose to meet the sun. Tara could not tell whether it was rising or setting. The card, Temperance, belonged to the Major Arcana, and, according to the writing at its top, its herbal association was Echinacea. Tara closed her eyes and thought back to what she had learned, so many years ago. 'Temperance. Moderation. Synthesis. Recovery. And Echinacea is an antibiotic. I guess that last one kind of makes sense.' She flipped through the packet that had accompanied the deck of cards, seeking more information on the relationship. It saddened her, how much she had forgotten; she felt that all the information must still be in her head somewhere, but that she was using an outdated filing system.

'This was a gift from Willow.' Even the hundredth time the thought crossed her mind, her heart swelled. 'How could she have known me this well, so shortly after we met?' She ran her finger lovingly over the edge of the card before replacing it atop the pile. It was the perfect present; Tara could only hope that the gift she had planned for Willow-she had stored the boxes in her closet, and planned to prepare it after tomorrow's work shift-would mean half as much in return.

Carefully, she squared the pack of cards and slipped them back into the box. She placed the package on her pillow, stretching with her arms so as not to disturb the book in her lap. She had been leafing through a book of famous pieces of art, and had chanced upon Collier's painting of Lady Godiva riding through Coventry on her white horse, clothed only in her long tresses of rich auburn hair. The image had pulled up thoughts of Willow, which were never far from the surface-'And what thoughts, indeed...' Tara remembered, drawing in a deep breath-and that had reminded her of the gift.


Her hands snapped the book closed. Tara cast a startled glance toward the door, where her father stood, leaning into the room with his hand on the doorknob. 'Without knocking.' She slipped her thumb out from between the pages. "Papa. Hi."

Mr. Maclay stepped across the entryway, invading her sanctuary. She watched his eyes do a slow circuit of the room, sweeping across the walls first. Finally, they settled on her. "What've you got there?" he inquired.

"J-just an art book." She turned the volume so that he could see the cover.

"Mm." He nodded. "Haven't seen you paint in a while." He spared a glance over his shoulder to check the wall behind him. "I figured you might have given it up."

'What is he doing in here?' Tara's mind screamed. His face was unreadable. "I-I haven't," she verified. "I might try it, again."

Her father slid his hands into the pockets of his jeans. "Make sure it's outside," he said. "That paint stuff stinks to high heaven, and we've got a lot less space here."

"Okay, Papa."

There was a long pause, during which Tara's chest alternately tightened and unclenched. "We need to set some rules," he stated at last. Tara did not speak, but nodded in quiet acquiescence. "First of all, when you leave this building, except to go to work, I need to know where you are. That means names and phone numbers where you'll be, written down and left on the kitchen counter, if I'm not here. Understood?"


"Number two: I want you here for supper. When I work late, I need to know that Donny's not going to be left to fend for himself. It is your responsibility to prepare the meals; I don't always have time to do this after work, and it is too expensive to order out." Mr. Maclay watched his daughter for signs that she acknowledged his instructions. Satisfied, he continued. "Three: You sleep here, in this apartment. There is no discussion about this. Do you understand?"

Gods, how she hated the way he talked her. 'Where did you go, Papa?' "Y-yes, I understand."

"Good." Her father withdrew his hands and crossed them at his chest, shifting on his feet. He approached the bed and sat on the edge, releasing an agitated sigh. "I don't like being a disciplinarian, Tara. I hate having to raise my voice, especially around Donny. You should know this." It was true-her father hardly ever yelled. He never needed to.

She was uncomfortable with the look he was giving her, now. He started to say one thing, then seemed to change his mind. "I don't like what's going on, here. I know it's been...hard. You, me, Donny-it's been hard on all of us since your mother died." Tara's fingers curled into the comforter. "We've all had to make sacrifices things. Don't think I don't see that. You have more responsibilities, now. We all do. I know you work hard. I know we depend on you for a lot. And I know you never had a chance to make many friends. But now, here you are spending time with these college kids...and I don't like the way they're influencing you. You've always been a good girl, Tara. Since we've moved it's like you're-it's like you're trying to be a different person. Trying to fit in, maybe." Her father scratched at the stubble on his jaw. "I'm not trying to keep you chained up, but I don't know what to do with you, anymore. Sneaking out? Lying to your brother and me? You're smarter than this, Tara."

Tara kept her gaze lowered, and forced her lip to keep from trembling. 'I will not cry in front of him.' Her eyes sought out and found the box of Tarot cards, which was still resting on the pillow. She found strength in it.

"We're going to have to work together," her father said. "I won't tolerate any more lies, Tara. Understood?" She nodded silently. "Okay," he continued, "here's how we'll do this. I will allow you to continue seeing your friends if-" Tara looked up quickly, surprised. "-if," he stressed, "you follow the rules." He held up one hand, and counted off the points on his fingers. "When you go out, like I said, I want to know where you are and who you're with. If you switch locations, I expect you to call me first. You can go out after we eat supper, and you must be home before ten o'clock."

His words fluttered past her ears, but they faded into the background as her brain drove home one single thought: 'I can keep seeing Willow and her friends!'

"And finally," Mr. Maclay declared, extending his thumb to represent the final rule, "before anything else, I want to meet these friends of yours."

"How are you feeling?" Xander asked Willow as they stood side by side in front of the sink in the Summers' kitchen. Xander was washing dishes, then passing them to Willow to dry.

Willow dabbed at her forehead with a dry corner of the dish towel. "Better. I hope Dawn doesn't feel too bad."

"Well, you give it a solid effort, right? That's got to count for something."

"I hope so." Willow took another large gulp from a gigantic mug of ice water. An acrid taste still lingered on her tongue. "I'll feel better when I can brush my teeth."

Xander grinned amiably and passed her a dripping wine glass, then fished around in the sudsy water for another. "Hey, Will, there actually was something I was hoping to get your thoughts on. I was going to talk to you about it when I got down to your campus, but since you're here and all..." Finding no more dishes in the sink, Xander pulled the plug, and water began rushing down the drain.

"Uh huh?"

He turned and hopped up on the countertop. "You know that Nissan Jesse's dad drives?"

"Mr. McNally? Sure."

"Well, he's getting a new car, and since Jesse's already got his mom's old car, he's looking to get rid of the Nissan. He made me a really great offer."

"That's great! Wow. If you had a car, you could visit all the time!"

Xander shook his head. "Actually, I was kind of considering something a bit more extreme than that. If I spend another few months saving up some more money from the store...maybe around the time you guys are headed back for your second semester, I could spend some time looking around for a job and an apartment down there. Near the campus. But hopefully not too near; the ones right next door get pretty pricey."

Willow was stunned. "Really? Oh my god, Xander. That', that's really great." She smiled. "A new, independent you? I like it."

"Well, maybe not entirely independent..." He wiped his hands on his cargo pants. "That's where you come in. See, it would be cheaper if I could find a roommate to split the costs of a two bedroom place, rather than looking at singles. No, don't worry," he intercepted her thought, "I know your folks would flip if you asked to move your own place so soon. But I thought maybe you could ask around. You know, see whether anyone's planning on moving off campus next semester, and who might be interested in going in on a place? I'd at least prefer somebody you knew, rather than having to deal with the whole strangers thing. Three people in a three bedroom would be fine, too, although there are fewer of those, from what I've seen in the listings."

"Okay. I don't know that many people, but I could definitely ask around. And hey, maybe somebody will know somebody else!"

"Two degrees of Willow separation is still a good start," Xander decided. "Thanks, Will. You're the best. And just think: we'll get to see each other all the time!"

'We'll get to see each other all the time!' Tara told herself. Since the conversation with her father, this thought had been sailing around inside her head, ruthlessly boarding and commandeering all other thoughts. 'With a window of...let's say three hours each day...times five days...that's a potential fifteen hours of Willow each week. Not counting weekends!' Distracted by her musings, Tara accidentally knocked the bottle of shampoo off of its narrow shelf while reaching for the shower poof. She cringed as it tumbled to the floor of the shower, and she bent down to retrieve it and set it back in its place.

After washing and rinsing, Tara allowed herself for a minute to simple stand below the cascade of water, letting the heat relax the tension in her neck and shoulders. She lolled her head from side to side, enjoying the sensation of her swinging hair, which was weighed down by the water. 'What is it with Willow thoughts in the shower?' she wondered. Her cheeks burned as she remembered her shower that morning, the one she had taken at Faith's after spending the night in Willow's dorm room. 'Those were Willow thoughts...' She also remembered, just as vividly, the look Faith had given her when she stepped out of the bathroom. ("Thought you might've drowned in there," Faith had said, and at once Tara had felt utterly transparent.)

But not now. Already, she'd been there for ten minutes, and her father complained about wasting water whenever she or Donny took too long in the shower. Besides, she wanted to shave her legs-a deed she'd been undertaking much more frequently since meeting the redhead, she realized-so that she could fully enjoy the bed sheets that were tumbling about in the dryer while she showered. Warm, crisp sheets and smooth legs was a heavenly combination.

She nicked the tricky area near her Achilles tendon when the bathroom door swung inward. It stung, and blood beaded at the cut, tinting the surrounding water a rosy pink. Tara slowly lowered the razor, a flake of her skin still wedged between the blades, to the lip of the tub. She couldn't make out his footsteps over the sound of the water, but his shadow darkened the shower curtain, and the click of the door's catch as it closed was as loud as a scream.

'Mama, help me...'

The shadow grew, and then she could hear everything: the horrible whisper of sliding cloth, the metallic jangle of a belt buckle striking the tile floor, the snap of an elastic waistband. As the curtain's rings glided across the rod, all Tara could think was, 'Fifteen hours. Fifteen hours.'

Continue to Constants Chapter Twenty-Five

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