"Can you see them?"
Faith nodded as she continued scanning the crowd, whispering back. "Yeah, Red. Don't worry about it Sheila and Ira are front row center."
"W-w-what about mine?" Tara asked.
Faith frowned. "I don't see her. Sorry, Tara. Why don't you look in a minute?"
"Can you see my mommy?" A small girl dressed as a turtledove asked, pulling on Faith's leotard.
Faith bent down and picked up the little girl. "Let's look together, Em. But we should be really quiet." The little girl nodded and looked out through the parted curtains into the restless audience.
"Wouldn't you know it? You losers are taking up the entire side of the stage. How are we supposed to see our parents?" Cordelia, Harmony, and their entourage swept-- in what they seemed to think was a majestic manner--toward Faith, Willow, Tara, and a few small kids at stage-left.
"You can just wait, Cordy," Willow told the maid-not-milking.
"I don't see why you're looking so hard. Her parents don't come to anything." Cordy motioned toward Tara who blushed and looked down at her clawed feet. "Oh, and Faith? I saw your mom. Maybe you should try looking near the door for someone drinking from a silver flask and looking like she'd rather be anywhere than here."
"There's Mommy!" Em started clapping and waving, unaware that her mommy wouldn't be able to see her.
"Alright," Faith said to cheer on the little girl before setting her back down. "Go find your teacher again, sweetie." As soon as the little girl ran away, Faith turned back to Cordelia. She looked at Tara who was still blushing and then back at the satisfied smirk on the brunette's face before stepping closer and closer. When she stood claw to foot with the girl she spoke very quietly. "Thanks for finding my mom for me, Cordy. Your folks look good tonight. I bet your dad had a hell of a time deciding whether to bring your mom or his girlfriend."
Willow's eyes bugged out at Faith's statement but before she could speak, Faith grabbed Willow and Tara's hands and tugged them away from the Max Factor entourage, as they liked to call the other girls.
Once they reached the chairs at the other side of the stage, Faith winked at Willow before addressing Tara. "I don't know why we let you talk us in to this, Blondie." She motioned at their matching costumes. "We're eighth graders. We rule the school and here we are, dressed as French hens on a hot Saturday night in December."
"She only talked me into it," Willow disagreed. "Snyder ordered you to participate."
Tara decided to join in the teasing. "Yeah. He told you that your detentions, volleyball, track, basketball, soccer, and softball didn't seem to be e-enough to tame your... how did he put it?"
"Delinquent tendencies." Willow offered.
"Right, delinquent tendencies."
Faith laughed at the teasing. "How would you and I have met otherwise?"
Tara walked carefully down the right side of the hallway, trying to avoid the mass of bodies seeming to walk and run in all directions. She wondered if she could ever get used to a school with so many students. It looked like there were more kids in this one hallway than in her entire home town. At least being a seventh grader in a K-8 school, she could see over most of the kids. She consulted the note in her hand again before looking at the numbers on the lockers to her right. J-142: There it was.
Faith looked up and noticed the girl she had helped see her mommy crying. "I'll be back."
"She has a heart of gold," Willow smiled, taking a step closer to Tara. She gently touched the blonde's hand with the tip of her finger. "Are you still coming over after the pageant?"
Tara glanced down at her feet before looking back up and smiling at her best friend. "Of course."
"Good, because I like you being near me." Willow winked and felt rewarded with one of Tara's smiles.
"Ok. People, remember to sing loudly so that everyone in the auditorium can hear you. I need my partridge, turtledoves, and French hens to line up over here." Ms. Calendar's voice was clear and everyone behind stage heard the direction easily. Willow and Tara met Faith at the back of the short line. Faith bent down to encourage both turtle doves and wipe Em's face. She had obviously been able to calm the 1st grader and convince her that she would see her mommy and daddy in just a few minutes.
The curtains opened and everyone sang as the Partridge stepped onto the stage. Ms. Calendar had choreographed the pageant so that each gift took center stage to sing its line before moving to stage right. Then on each line, that gift would sing its title again. As French Hens, Tara, Willow, and Faith spent most of the song on stage. When the song was over, the audience clapped wildly, most of them balancing their camcorders on their laps to do so, and the curtains closed.
Once the girls had changed out of their leotards, bird feet, and feathery headdresses and into jeans and sweaters, they went out front to meet Willow's parents.
Mrs. Rosenberg gave each girl a hug. "That was really good, girls."
"Good job," Mr. Rosenberg added.
Willow's mom motioned toward Faith and Tara's overnight bags. "Do you need to say hi to your moms?"
"I think mine left sometime around the maids a'milking," Faith explained.
"She wasn't f-f-feeling very ..." Tara trailed off and lifted her bag. "We can go."
After the girls had put their bags in Willow's room they came back downstairs. Willow's parents had set out the three menorahs for the first night of Hanukkah.
Willow bounced down the stairs in front of Faith and Tara. She arrived at the table to stand in front of the three menorahs. Tara stopped at the bottom step, her lips curling up into a smile as she watched the way the redhead adjusted the placement of each candelabra. She carefully moved the larger ones out a little and the smaller one closer to the edge of the table. After she had moved the menorahs, she touched each candle in the first spot and the center candle. Satisfied that the setup was complete she looked up at her friends. "Come over here and each of us can light one." She shifted her focus to look at her parents. "Right? Tara and Faith can each light one, right?"
"Yes, sweetie," Mr. Rosenberg answered, taking a step back to make way for his daughter's friends.
Faith stepped quickly across the room to stand in front of the man and took the candle which he extended toward her. With his other hand he handed her a Xeroxed sheet. "These are the transliterations of the blessings we will be saying." She nodded as Tara moved more tentatively in front of the other menorah.
This time Willow leaned toward the blonde, handing her the candle and prayer sheet and leaning close. "We're all going to recite these together. You can light this candle from the one in your hand and then put the one in your hand in the center spot." She used the tip of her index finger to punctuate each instruction, smiling when Tara nodded. She even shared her experience that using the lit candle to melt the wax on the bottom of the middle candle would make it easier to place it in the menorah.
Willow's parents reiterated the instructions on which blessing would be said on this, the first night of the eight day holiday as Willow rolled her eyebrows as if saying, "like I'd forget which blessings." Within a minute or so, the group had recited the blessings and lit the candles.
"Do we s-s-stand here and watch them?"
"No," Shelia smiled, "but you might want to open these." She reached into the drawer in the table and handed each girl a small mesh bag of chocolate gelt.
"Thank you, Mrs. Rosenberg, but you did-didn't have to..."
"Hey, there's a ten dollar bill here," Faith said excitedly.
"Plus which, chocolate!" Willow added. "Thanks Mom. Thanks Dad." She gave each parent a quick hug.
"Definitely thanks," Faith said as she cracked open one of the gold coins.
"Come on," Willow said taking Tara's hand and pulling her toward the stairs, the pair shadowed by Faith.
The door closed behind them with a slam, obviously louder than Faith intended as the girls could see by the blush on the brunette's face. "I can't believe your parentals gave us all presents!"
Willow flopped down onto a large pillow on the floor. "I think they're really glad to see me making friends. You know friendly friends? I mean I've never been much for the friends or the friendliness. Well... there was Xander when we were kids but he was all about crayons. You know, yellow crayons, black crayons, blue crayons, whatever. And he stole my Barbie doll one time. But that's beside the point. I mean they're just really glad that we're all friends and that we're so ... you know... close? I mean we're close right?"
Faith fixed the redhead with a look that clearly said she was too cool to respond to such an emotional statement but Tara grabbed one of the many pillows on the floor and lay down next to her friend, giving her a pat on the hand. "Yes, Willow. We're happy to be friends too." She thought about the day she'd met both students.
Tara looked at the piece of paper in her hand and checked the signs on the school walls. At least it didn't seem as crowded as it had been earlier in the day when she tried to find her locker only to find herself the butt of a joke. She hadn't seen the girl who had come to her defense again and wondered if the girl was in a lot of trouble.
It had quickly become a tradition for the three girls to meet it the library. Faith was usually there for detention and Tara suspected that she actually got herself assigned more detention so she wouldn't suffer any social stigma from enjoying hanging out with her new friends. Tara enjoyed the time after school and Willow was very helpful when she had any trouble with her Algebra homework. By the start of eighth grade, Faith didn't even keep up the pretense of detention.
Faith took another bite of chocolate. "In the moments when mom's not dead drunk, I think she's pretty happy that I'm friends with you two non-delinquents too."
"Will she be s-sick tomorrow?"
Faith shrugged. "I'd imagine so. It's always a party at the Lehane house with her headaches and throwing up and never getting out of bed before 11:00." She took another bite of her chocolate as the other girls tried unsuccessfully to think of anything to say.
When Faith got like this Tara always felt like she couldn't say anything useful. Her mother was nothing like Faith's and even though she wasn't available much she never badmouthed Tara or got drunk and sick. And Willow's parents were frequently absent, more absent than Tara felt like the parents of a 14 year old should be, but Willow didn't seem to think it was out of the norm. In fact, she seemed to relish the freedom her family situation gave her. Of course the irony was that all she wanted to do with that freedom was read and play on her computer more. Tara's lips curled up in a smile whenever she thought about her quirky and brilliant friend.
Willow watched Tara, wondering what the blonde was thinking. Whatever it was Tara had that adorable half-smile that Willow liked so much on her face. Sometimes when the three girls were hanging out in the library, she would notice Tara smiling and find herself staring. She didn't think that Tara ever noticed because that would be really weird. But it was engaging. Especially good were the times that Willow knew the smile appeared because of something she said or did. At the end of the day when Willow wrote her day's impressions in her online journal, a half-smile was always good for at least a point on the five-point scale the redhead used to rate a day.
"Four more years. Ok, four and a half and I'm out of there." Willow and Tara said nothing but just smiled at their friend. They'd heard Faith's patented speech about leaving her mother's house when she turned 18, not that they disagreed, more times than even Willow could count. "I'm going to live in a nice house and drive a nice car. Maybe a BMW or a Jag. That would be cool."
"A-are you going to work?"
"You bet your ass I will." Faith ate her last piece of chocolate as she talked. "I'd like to do something to help people. Maybe be a cop."
"You'd make a good police officer," Willow agreed.
"Plus which I'll have a really good looking husband," Faith added. "But a guy who makes good money and doesn't drink like the losers my mother always finds." She poked Willow lightly on the shoulder. "Like Jimmy."
"Jimmy. He's smart and he's a cutie and he's always watching you in Algebra and English class." Tara looked back and forth between Willow and Faith wondering what the brunette was talking about. Because she opted for Choir and Art, Tara only shared Civics and Earth Sciences with the other two girls. Willow's face was coloring as she opened and closed her mouth in response to Faith's teasing while Faith smiled at her friend.
Willow said the first thing she could think of. "I don't think he's that cute."
"Oh come on. He's got really blue eyes and that nice smile. Tara thinks he's cute don't you?"
Tara stammered at first. "I-I-I guess he's ok. I mean his eyes are pretty and he never makes fun of me."
"See," Faith folded her arms across her chest to emphasize just how right she was.
Before she could continue her interrogation of which boys the other girls found the cutest, a pastime of which she never bored, there was a knock at the door. Faith and Tara looked at their host who stood up and walked over to the door and opened it. Sheila stepped into the room and looked at the three girls. "I'm sorry girls. Faith, your mother just called. I need to take you home."
"Is everything ok?" Tara asked worriedly.
"Oh yes," Sheila attempted to reassure the girls. "She just said she might need Faith's help in the morning."
Faith took a deep breath. "That's cool." She reached over and picked up her bag before giving both other girls a hug. "Thanks again for having us over and for the chocolates and dough."
"You're very welcome, Faith," Sheila reassured her as they left the room, pulling the door shut behind them.
Willow sat down on the floor again, this time leaning against the bed and picked idly at a loose thread in the carpet. "I'm sure she just wanted Faith to help in the ... " Willow shuddered slightly at the thought but didn't finish it outloud. "Do you want to get ready for bed and then watch a video?" When Tara just nodded without much of a smile Willow decided that it had been much too long since she'd last seen the blonde smile. "I got some new pajamas for Hanukkah. I mean in advance. Cause tonight is the first night and you saw me get the chocolate like you but for tomorrow night. My mom though it would be nice if I had some new ones. Wait until you see them."
Tara smiled more from knowing that her friend was trying to cheer her up than from what Willow was saying. Willow always tried to do that, to make her smile and it was so sweet. She wasn't surprised when the redhead continued her efforts. "Do you want to go change first?" Tara nodded and picked up her bag.
A few minutes discussion resulted in their watching Ocean's Eleven (again) but both girls enjoyed the adventure and they didn't have to concentrate on the movie very hard, having seen it at least 10 times in the last few months. After the movie ended, they both visited the bathroom again before stretching out on the floor in their sleeping bags. A few months ago they had gotten tired of Tara carrying her own sleeping bag back and forth and had just decided to leave it in Willow's closet. "Do you want me to turn off the light?" Willow asked.
"Good night, Tara."
"Good night, Willow."
Perhaps 30 seconds went by before Tara broke the silence. "Willow?"
"I like your new pajamas."
"Thanks, Tara." Tara could hear Willow's smile even in the dark.
"I mean I didn't even know that they made Hanukkah pajamas. With the menorah and Star of David and little snowflakes. They're really c-c-cute."
"And blue," Willow enthused. "Did you know that Hanukkah has an official color?"
Tara leaned up on one elbow. Now that her eyes had adjusted, she found that she could see Willow's profile in the slight moonlight coming through the crack in the curtains. Willow was looking at the stars on her ceiling which hadn't stopped glowing yet from the light they had just turned off and Tara could watch her friend relatively unobstructed. "I think you m-might have mentioned it, Willow. Blue?" Willow turned and smiled at her friend's teasing tone.
Both girls lay back down to finish watching the stars fade. Once the color was gone, Willow offered, "I can turn the light back on if you want them to go again."
"That's ok. I can see pretty well now that my eyes have adjusted."
A few minutes later Willow spoke again. "Are you still awake?" Willow asked her question quietly in case Tara had fallen asleep. She didn't think that the girl had because her breathing didn't yet have that sweet smooth sound it usually had when she was asleep but she wasn't sure.
"Can I ask you something? I mean something else. Not are you awake which I guess is one question or can I ask you something which is the second but I guess a third question. Can I ask you a third question?" Willow finished quickly as she glanced sideways and noticed the smile spreading across Tara's face.
"Yes," Tara said before adding, "and yes again."
"I guess it's not a question so much. I mean maybe it is. I mean... " Willow faltered here. "Do you think it's abnormal how much Faith thinks about boys? I mean not that there's anything wrong with it. But I um don't. I mean I don't know. I don't really sit around thinking about boys or which is nicest or cutest or who I want to marry. I mean and Cordelia and Harmony are always reading Bride magazine when they come to the library but have you seen that thing? It's filled with like a hundred and fifty white dresses. And I don't really..." She stopped speaking for a minute and gathered her breath. "I'm a dork."
Tara reached across to take Willow's hand in her own. "I don't think that either of you are abnormal, Will, or a dork. I just think that you have d-different um interests?"
Enjoying the feeling of Tara's hand in her own, Willow closed her fingers slightly on it to keep it there. "What about you? I mean do you, you know, like think about boys like Faith and want to get married in a long white dress like Cordelia is always talking about?"
"I guess I'd um like to get m-married someday," Tara said, wondering why the thought made her feel so sad.
"Oh," Willow sounded somewhat deflated by Tara's answer. "I guess that makes sense. I just wondered." She fell silent although Tara noticed that she didn't release the blonde's hand.
Another five minutes went by before Tara spoke. She hoped that Willow hadn't fallen asleep in the meantime and she was pretty sure the girl was still awake because she was lightly brushing her thumb across the back of Tara's hand in a way that felt really nice. "Willow?"
Willow stopped her thumb immediately. "I'm sorry. I didn't really think about what I was doing. Was it keeping you awake?"
"No, Willow. I um. Actually it felt really good."
"Really?" Willow's face lit up in a smile and she returned to moving her thumb in the same pattern. After a minute or so Willow spoke again. "So why did you say my name?"
"I... I..." Tara took comfort from the way Willow momentarily squeezed her hand to let her know she could take her time. "Well, you know how Faith thinks about living in a big house and a nice car?"
"She tells us often enough," Willow answered.
Tara took a deep breath. "Right. Well, It's just that um I ... when I think about that stuff ... I only picture this... I mean... y-y-you and me?" She turned her head slightly to the side to see if Willow was watching her with an "are you crazy?" look but the redhead was impassive. "Like this. Watching the stars? Or talking long after we should be asleep?"
Willow leaned up on one elbow without releasing Tara's hand. Gently she pulled it toward her lips and placed a soft kiss on the palm.
"Me too, Tara. Me too."