Willow stifled a yawn while stepping out of a black Jeep Cherokee. She gave the quad a once-over before turning back to the vehicle's open door. "Thanks again for the ride, Mrs. Summers. I really, really appreciate it."
"Of course," Joyce replied with a smile. "Like I said, it's on the way in to the city, so if you ever need a ride to or from the campus, you just let me know. Mondays and Wednesdays are perfect, at least while the exhibit's open this month. And you could remind Buffy about that, too, you hear?"
"All right. Have a great day, Willow." Joyce checked the mirrors as Willow shut the car door, then she cautiously pulled out of the turnaround. Willow gave the vehicle a wave and watched it disappear down the hill before heading toward her building.
'Okay, day. Let's see what you've got for me.'
Cordelia was awake and recently showered when Willow arrived at their room. She sat at her desk with a mirror tilted toward her face while she applied blush to her cheeks with a large brush, but she paused as Willow entered. "Well, good morning," she said. "Somebody was gone the entire night. And just what were you up to?" Willow could see in the mirror a playful grin on her lips. "Or should I ask who you were up to?"
"Nothing. Or, nobody-no one. I went home."
"On a Sunday night?"
"Uh, yeah, one of my friends from high school-well, from way before high school, really-his name's Xander. His uncle's in the hospital and doing really badly, and his family's stress levels are through the roof, so I was doing the best friend thing," Willow explained. 'Well, that's mostly true. That's three quarters of it, anyway.'
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that." Cordelia's smirk disappeared, and she resumed her primping.
Willow shook the set of overnight clothes out of her backpack, then selected two books from the shelf to replace them. "How come you're awake so early?"
"Eight o'clock psych lecture. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, remember?"
"Right. With Buffy. Sorry, I'm a little bit tired."
Cordelia snapped her compact shut and sighed. "Never again am I signing up for early classes. This was such a bad idea. Anyway, I'm going to hurry and grab some breakfast. I'm not sure if I'll be around tonight."
"All right. See you later, maybe."
Once Cordelia left, Willow flopped down on her bed. 'Oof, not a good move. Darned gravity.' Her eyelids felt like they weighed half a ton apiece. She stretched her back, causing a series of delightful pops to ripple down her spine, then sank back into the mattress. The tranquility was shattered by a buzzing in her pocket, and Willow reluctantly withdrew her phone to check the name. Oz, again. 'Ugh. No, not right now.' She would have to talk to him, she knew, and soon, but it was early, she was tired, and she wasn't yet sure that she could approach the conversation with an even temper. Willow muted her phone and closed her eyes, against her better judgment. 'Come on, Rosenberg. Physics. Get up. Get ready.' Her body had other ideas. 'Get movin'. Up, up, up. You've only got an hour.' She considered this. 'Well, you have got an hour...'
Sixty-eight minutes later, Willow hurried down the hill toward her first class. "Excuse me. Sorry. Pardon me," she squeaked as she weaved her way through the other students. She mentally berated herself; forgetting to set an alarm clock, even for a short nap, was a foolish mistake. Two sheets of her homework were clutched in one hand. Willow had hoped she could skim it on her trip to class, but she had soon realized that she could read or run, but not both. 'There had better not be any errors on these,' she warned herself. It wouldn't do to mar her perfect average on the assignments.
She reined in her pace when she reached the Physics building. Oz was sitting on the steps leading to the main entrance. He had his cell phone in hand and was fiddling with its antenna, alternately extending it and popping it back in against his palm. Willow thought about making a detour and entering the building through one of the other doors, but realized that it would only delay the inevitable. It was lucky she didn't, for she hadn't taken two steps when Oz spied her. He shoved in the antenna one last time and watched her approach.
"Hey," Willow said.
"Hey. Been trying to call you."
"Yeah. I, uh...I saw."
"Will, can we-"
"I've got a class now," Willow interrupted, pointing at the building.
"Right, yeah, I know. I just thought maybe-"
"What?" Willow snapped. "That I'd blow off my responsibilities for somebody who made me the least of his?"
The words hung between them, and instantly she regretted unleashing them. Oz was quiet for several seconds, during which his eyes did not stray from her face. Willow felt that he wasn't even looking at her, but was instead focusing on a point somewhere behind her head. "I thought maybe we could pick a better time to talk," he finished.
"Oh." She felt even worse for her retort. "Yeah, we could do that. Uh, I usually eat lunch on South Campus with Buffy before our Mythology class. We could meet up on the Mall beforehand, say at noon? Oh, wait, no. You've got class then. Well, what about after my-"
"No, that'd be fine. Noon's good."
Willow frowned. "But what about your Ethnomusicology class?"
"What do you mean, 'leaving?'" Buffy asked.
"He's leaving. Withdrawing from all his classes and leaving the University. He's flunking most of them, already."
"But Oz is like a genius. How does that happen?"
"'Cause brains only help if you use them," Willow grumbled.
Buffy shook her head. "Geez. I can't believe it." She pulled her book bag closer to her feet to give a passing student easier access to the aisle. "What's he going to do?"
"He's not really sure. He said he might fly out to Los Angeles to visit his dad for a while."
"But what about his band?"
"What? Get out." Disbelief was clearly evident on Buffy's face. "Are you serious?"
Willow nodded. "One hundred percent."
"God, Will. I don't even know what to say. I'm so sorry." She reached out and placed her hand on top of Willow's. "You must be feeling pretty crummy, huh?"
"Mm." But she didn't. She felt something else entirely: relief. With Oz in California, there would be no accidentally running into him in the dining hall. There would be no seeing him carrying his guitar across the quad. There would be no noticing his van parked at the loop. There wouldn't be the hundred daily reminders that her boyfriend continued to share space on campus with her. 'Ex-boyfriend.' Oz hadn't just left the University.
"You want to do something, tonight?" Buffy offered. "Grab dinner somewhere off campus?"
Willow shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. Thanks. Can I let you know later?"
"Of course. It's all of the good. We could just stay in and hang out, too."
"Yeah." Willow took the conversation in a different direction. "How is it going with Riley?"
Buffy hesitated. "Um, are you sure you want to hear about that? I don't want to get all lovey-dovey..."
"Things are good, then?"
"The goodest. I think Cordelia's driving him up the wall, though."
"Why? I thought she was over that."
Buffy shook her head. "Not because of us. It's this Help Center thing. He's running the sessions for the new trainees, and he and Cordy are kind of butting heads. There are all kinds of rules for things you're supposed to do for callers, and other things you're not supposed to do, and she doesn't like them."
"Well, you're supposed to be understanding, right? You know, like, 'So it sounds to me like you're saying blah blah blah,' then you rephrase what they said, to let them know you're listening and caring, and to give them a chance to add to what they already said. But you're not supposed to reveal too much of yourself, personally. Like if they ask something about you, you're supposed to turn the conversation back to them. Cordelia thinks that makes the conversations too impersonal."
"Huh. Yeah, I guess I can kind of see that. I mean, if I was really depressed about something, I'd want to feel like I was having a conversation with a real person, and not a somebody reading a script." Willow paused. "But, then again, giving out personal information to people who might not be in the best place emotionally probably isn't such a good idea, either."
"Yup. That's exactly it. I figure you probably need to do a bit of both," Buffy agreed. "But Riley is being Mr. By-the-Book, and Cordelia's fighting him on it every step of the way. They're both making good points, and I'm-well, I'm just trying to stay out of the way." She chuckled.
"Probably a wise decision." Willow nodded sagely.
"Yeah. So the training is...special. But Riley and I are doing great. We've got this unspoken agreement to not talk about the sessions outside of the Center. Kind of separates work and...not work."
"Well, good. See? I'm really happy for you, Buffy. Oh...we're talking about Horus, today."
Buffy furrowed her brow. "Huh? Was that in the reading?"
"No," Willow said. She pointed at the classroom door, where Professor Giles had just entered, wearing a ridiculous falcon headdress. "Just a hunch."
"Jesus, what a bitch."
Richard frowned. "Faith..."
"Sorry, but it's true."
"She's a paying customer."
Faith scoffed. "Paying you, maybe. Have you seen how she tips? Anybody who sends their food back twice, then complains to her waiter that the coffee is too hot earns themselves a black mark in my book."
"Yeah. Particular with a capital B." She ignored her boss' look of disapproval. "All I'm saying is that it's a good thing I don't wait tables here, 'cause I'd sure snap on people like that. I don't know how those guys put up with it-acting all cheerful when you know they must want to whack some of those people upside the head."
Richard scanned the diner floor. "Some less cheerful than others," he mentioned. "What's wrong with Tara, today?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, don't you think she's a little bit...? Let's go with 'gloomy.'"
Faith watched Tara interact with one of her customers. She seemed to be carrying herself in a pleasant, professional manner, but sure enough, as soon as she walked away from the table her expression morphed from cheery to dour. "I've seen her happier," Faith agreed.
"Are you going to talk with her?" Richard asked.
"Well, we can't very well have Little Miss Mopeyface gathering storm clouds over our dining room, can we?"
"Yeah, but why me?" Faith challenged.
"She's your friend. Isn't she?"
"Oh, great. So I get to bring her wrath down on me? What about Andrew? He's her friend."
"Mm. Well, he's not here, yet," Richard pointed out. He glanced at the clock. "Running late, I suppose, although he did say he might be cutting this shift close to the end of one of his classes. So it's on you."
Faith sighed and waited for Tara's next trip through the kitchen. She muttered under her breath, "Man, go figure that this having friends gig would come with strings attached..." When Tara stopped to rinse her hands at the sink, Faith sidled up beside her. "So, T, my good friend."
"Here's how this is gonna go down," she continued. "I'm going to mention that you're casting enough Gloom Rays to darken the entire town. You, understanding that I'm speaking as a messenger and a friend, are not going to get pissed at me. How's that sound?"
Tara blinked. "Um. Okay."
"Good." Faith wiped her hands on the front of her jeans. "Well, then, consider the message delivered. What's up with you, today?"
"Can I just, uh..." Tara nodded toward the door, where a young couple had just entered. They were waiting to be seated. A moment later, Andrew hurried through the door, sweat glistening on his forehead.
"Yeah. Right," Faith agreed. "Better get to it, before Andrew scares 'em away. Just grab me when you've got a minute." Her eyes followed Tara's progress toward the door, and again she noticed her shift in demeanor as she neared the customers. Faith congratulated herself on her effective defusing of the situation. 'So a preemptive strike might not be the most elegant solution, but at least I escaped unharmed. And any crash you can walk away from...'
"Hey," Andrew said when he walked over.
"Did you ever watch Duck Tales?" she asked.
"What? Yes. What?"
Faith shook her head. "Nothin'. Just thought of it."
"Okay." Andrew dragged the word out. "Uh...oh. Hey, I brought your book back." He slung his book bag from his shoulder, unzipped the middle pocket, and withdrew a soft-cover novel. On its front, a shirtless and virile young man brooded masterfully under the heavy-lidded gaze of a voluptuous siren. In the background, a trio of Buick-sized arachnids effectively conveyed impending dismemberment. "It was pretty good. Thanks."
Faith slipped the book behind her back when Tara returned, and she managed to tuck it into the closet while Tara and Andrew exchanged pleasantries. "So, I come bearing gifts," Andrew was saying as she eased into the conversation. "For both of you, actually."
"What's the occasion?" Tara asked.
Tara smiled weakly. "I guess that's as good a reason as any. Oh, excuse me..." She hustled back out into the dining room to see a diner out and clear the table.
"Well, I guess yours is first," Andrew said to Faith. He pulled some papers out of his back pocket and handed them to her, then grabbed an apron from a peg on the wall. Faith examined the pages. There were four, stapled together; each contained a table of data with pictures of buildings and floor plans. "I compiled a list of the most cost-efficient apartments in the area." Andrew pointed at various figures on the page as he explained. "This number here is the distance from the campus. I added commuting times where I could calculate them, for places where you'd need to take a bus. That's the price for each one, and the date it opens up. See? Some of them aren't available yet, but I didn't know when your lease was up. These pages here are two-bedroom apartments, if...you know, if there's anyone you'd want to move in with. And those," he said, indicating notes scribbled in the margins, "are comments from some of the tenants. Obviously, I couldn't get them for all the places, but I went to a few."
Faith stared for a long moment at the papers, taking his words in. "Holy Hell," she said at last. "Andrew, this is...this is wicked awesome. How did you do this? How did you even know I was moving?"
He shrugged. "Overheard you talking with Tara yesterday."
Faith gaped. "You did this in a day?!"
"Well, it wasn't all my doing," Andrew admitted. "I asked some of the guys to help measure the bus times and talk with the tenants. I thought this place was really good." He pointed at a picture near the top of page one. "It was one of the ones I visited. It had a gated entry and the row of trees-seemed kind of sheltered from the road, you know? Good price, good layout, and the people there seemed really nice. Plus, walking distance from the market, there."
She nodded. "I can't believe you did this. Seriously, you kick so much ass, right now."
"What's that?" Tara asked as she approached. She handed Faith an order slip, then hovered nearby as she worked.
"Just Andrew, being the Man of the Hour." Faith chuckled when she noticed Andrew puff up from the compliment. "So now I've got to know what you brought for Tara," she said to him. "It's going to have to be good to top this."
"Oh, right," he said. "Well, it's not really something I brought, but more like news I happened to hear."
"Uh huh?" Tara prodded.
"Well, I caught up with Willow and Buffy after my noon class. Usually I see them at lunch, but they were mysteriously absent." Faith watched Tara's reaction carefully when he mentioned Willow; her ears perked up at the name, and at once she seemed more interested in Andrew's story. It was going to be good, Faith realized. She could tell by the way he was making them dig for it.
"Oh...did something happen?" Tara asked.
"You could say that. Apparently, Willow and her boyfriend got into a fight or something, yesterday morning. That musician guy?"
Tara's eyes widened. "Oz?"
"Yup, right." Andrew snapped his fingers. "Sooo, I guess Willow yelled at him, and now he's leaving town, or maybe just the University. I didn't catch that part. But, yeah. Thought you might like to know."
Faith watched a wide range of emotions flash across Tara's face. Surprise. Anger. Hope. Concern. The last one was voiced when Tara asked, "Is she okay?"
Andrew shrugged. "She didn't seem all that broken up, honestly. When I saw them talking on the Mall, she sounded pretty matter-of-fact, you know? But, I mean, who knows? Maybe you should ask her." He waggled his eyebrows and nudged Tara's side with his elbow. "Eh? Eh?"
Tara looked from Andrew to Faith, who couldn't help grinning as she flipped some sausages on the grill. "You two are terrible," Tara chuckled.
A blinking light on the answering machine caught Willow's attention the moment she entered her dorm room. She shuffled over to her desk and dropped her bag onto it, then sat down on the corner of her bed to listen to the message.
"Hi, W-Willow? It's me. Um, Tara. Would you like to, uh, to come over for dinner? Tonight, I mean. M-my father said he wanted to meet you, and-and we could, you know, hang out for a while, or something? I know the invitation is on short notice, and Papa can be...intimidating? So if you're busy, or if you don't feel like coming over, it's no problem at all. But could you let me know, either way?"
Willow's mind was racing as she retrieved her cell phone.
"Oh, and I hope you're doing okay, uh, after yesterday, w-with the soup and all. Okay, uh, well that's it. I guess I'll hear from you, later."
Tara wanted to have her over for dinner. Tara wanted her to meet her family. 'Well, no,' Willow mentally amended, 'her father wants to meet me. I don't know if she's so crazy about the idea of me meeting him, though.' The thought worried Willow. Was Mr. Maclay really as frightening as Tara's body language often suggested? Andrew had said the man was strange and possibly overly controlling. Plus, there was fact that Tara had stayed with Faith for a few days, and although Tara hadn't said so explicitly, Willow had a feeling that Tara's father was a large part of the reason for that. Going to Tara's would mean facing her father, however scary he might be. On the other hand, it would mean having dinner with Tara. So really, there wasn't any decision at all.
"Hi, this is Willow. Is Tara there?"
"Uh, one sec. Tare! Phone! Hang on a second. I think she might be out on the-oh, never mind, here she is." Willow heard the phone being passed off.
"Willow?" It was Tara's voice. 'I love Tara's voice.'
"Hey, Sheriff." Tara laughed at her own joke, and the sound instantly brought a smile to Willow's face.
"Is the dinner invitation still open?" she asked.
"Open and hopeful. Should we set an extra place at the table?"
"Uh huh. I'd love to come over."
"Wonderful. Can you make it here by quarter of?"
Willow glanced at her alarm clock. "Uh huh, that should be fine."
"Cool. I'll, um...see you then."
'Don't panic. Don't panic,' Tara thought, checking the casserole for the tenth time in as many minutes. 'He'll be on his best behavior, she'll be...well, she'll be Willow. He'll like her. He has to like her. What's there not to like about her?' Her father was in the shower at the moment-she could hear the water coursing through the plumbing-so she was careful not to run the faucet but in quick bursts.
She checked the freezer to make sure there was enough ice, then peeked into the fridge. 'Okay. Dessert, check. Dressing, check-oh God, I haven't made the salad!' She heard a knock on the door, and her eyes flew to the clock. Six forty-three. 'Crap.'
"You need me to get that?" Donny yelled from the bedroom, where he was doing his homework.
"I got it," she called back. Tara rinsed her hands quickly and dried them on a dishtowel as she went to the door. Through the peephole, she saw Willow standing in the hallway. She giggled. The lens warped the girl's frame; there appeared to be a normal-sized Willow torso atop stumpy little legs. She unlatched the door and welcomed her in.
"Hey, Tara." Willow moved in close and gave her a hug, momentarily making Tara forget her thousand worries.
"Willow," Tara breathed back, her voice more sultry than she had intended. She drew back half an arm's length and forced her gaze to Willow's face, so that she could gauge her reaction. She was sporting a goofy grin, and color was filling in the space between the freckles on her cheeks. That could only be good. Willow's eyes flicked to focus behind her, and Tara turned to see Donny watching them from the hallway. Willow took a step to the side, and her hands slipped from Tara to wring together in front of her stomach.
"Um, Willow, this is my brother, Donny," Tara said, inwardly cursing his timing. She finished the introduction. "Donny, Willow."
"Hey," said Donny, with a brief nod of his head. Willow smiled and gave him a timid wave.
She looked uncomfortable, Tara thought, so she offered a lifeline. "Willow, I'm running a little behind with dinner. Would you join me in the kitchen while I finish up?"
"Sure. Need any help?"
"Actually, if you wouldn't mind chopping up some lettuce for the salad...Donny, could you set the table?"
"Yeah, I guess," he sighed, as though her request was on par with cleaning the Augean stables.
She escaped to the kitchen with Willow, and between the two of them, they whipped up a garden salad. They decided to make garlic bread, as well, and when Tara opened the fridge to get the butter, Willow let out a surprised gasp. "That's my note!"
Tara leaned backward and swung the door so she could see the slip of paper that had caught Willow's attention. She pried off the magnet that held it, and carried the note to Willow's side. "Mm hm. Andrew gave it to me, after you all left." She grinned. "You have no idea how many times I've read this. Every time I come in here, there's Mr. Happy Face, ready to make my day a bit brighter. I had to look up 'paludal,' though," she confessed with a blush.
"Oh, don't worry," Willow laughed. "I only knew it 'cause I'd seen it in a crossword puzzle the day before. It's amazing how many words you learn from those things."
Tara shook her head. "Maybe you learn new words," she chuckled, "but I'm terrible at them. All my new words have blank spaces and letters that can't possibly be next to each other in them."
They finished making the garlic bread, then toasted it in the oven for in a few minutes, filled a water pitcher, and finally brought all the food to the table. "Okay, that just about does it," Tara said, wiping down the countertop with the dishtowel. She turned and leaned back against it. "Thanks for the help."
"No problem. That was fun," Willow admitted. "Well, maybe not so much for you, what with working in a diner all day. And-and I guess I don't even mean the whole making dinner thing, specifically. Just...you know, being all domestic. With you."
"Well, any time you want to come over and help make dinner, you're more than welcome to," Tara joked. She knew what Willow meant, though. While preparing the meal with Willow, she had been able to ignore the fact that not thirty feet away, her father was getting dressed. For a moment, it had been just the two of them, spending an evening together in their own cozy little apartment. Her heart fluttered lazily in the updraft created by her fantasy, then just as quickly plummeted.
"Why, hello there," said Mr. Maclay from the doorway.