The sun was hovering just below the horizon, but underneath the shadow of the behemoth that was the International Convention Center, oblong lumps were already stirring.
"Tell me it's worth camping out all night for this," one young man crawling out of his sleeping bag said to his friend.
"Oh it's definitely worth it. Up close and personal with Karin, that's the fulfillment of my ultimate fantasy," the second young man said as he too crawled out of his sleeping bag and stretched.
"What's the ETA on Will?" Xander, the first young man, asked.
"She's taking the first train out. Should be here with plenty of time to spare," Andrew, the second young man, replied.
"Okay, let's get the show on the road," Xander started packing up his sleeping bag. He glanced at the assortment of boxes that were nested between Andrew and his sleeping place, making sure that the treasured action figures and collectibles were still intact.
Meanwhile, at the Rosenberg residence, it was DEFCON 1, RED ALERT and Panic Stations combined.
"It's not here! Where is it?" a flurry of red scuttled around her room, which had been turned upside down, while Willow ransacked every single possible crevice.
She moaned and whimpered as she emptied drawers, flipped her duvet and pulled all her books from their shelves.
"Think!!" she forced herself to stop and think back to the last time she saw the envelope.
She had it at home in the morning.
She and Faith fought over it, yesterday when Faith ...
Tara's brother's restaurant.
She dropped everything out of her backpack when she first spied Tara there, before the misunderstanding with Donnie was cleared.
The envelope must still be in the restaurant. May be the staff picked it up.
She scrambled for her cellphone and punched in the number. It didn't occur to her that it was 5am.
After an indeterminable number of rings, a sleepy voice answered. "The Greenhouse, how may I -- what time is it?" Willow recognized Donnie's voice but had too much on her mind to wonder whether he lived at the restaurant.
"I'm really sorry to call so early, this is Willow Rosenberg, Tara's friend?" she said.
"Ahhhh," Donnie yawned.
"Um," Willow hesitated.
"What is it?" Donnie's voice teetered between worry and annoyance.
"I lost a blue envelope, I think I left it at your restaurant. The contents of my backpack fell out, it must have fallen under the table," Willow explained. "It's very important."
"Well, if the cleaners found it, they'd put it in the lost and found box. I don't remember seeing any envelopes last night," Donnie said.
"It's really important. It's for ... work," Willow lied, she was so desperate.
"Not sure I can help you."
"Sorry to disturb you, sorry sorry."
Donnie yawned again. "Yeah, okay." He hung up before Willow had the chance to thank him.
Willow had no choice but to go to the convention center to face her friends. "I'm going to hell. Where is it? Why is it missing?" she muttered as she ran from the station.
She called Xander and Andrew from the train, and expected to be flogged and flayed by her friends when she reached the venue. Instead, Xander took one look at her miserable and ashamed expression and wrapped her in a bear hug.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry," she kept repeating. Guilt was written so clearly on her face.
"Will, it happens. We're disappointed, but there'll be another chance," Xander comforted.
"You're not mad?" Tears were in her eyes, she sniffed.
"We were at first. But it could have happened to us too. What if I was the one who had the tickets and they'd gone missing? I feel your pain, Will. It's our pain," Xander said.
"We decided we're going to set up our own stall right here, we can still sell our stuff. And then when we're rich, we'll go and get regular entrance tickets, okay?" Andrew chimed in.
Willow's tears continued to fall, only now they were tears of relief. She still felt guilty, for losing the tickets, and the big lie to Tara was hanging over her. But Xander and Andrew's understanding was right in front of her, she couldn't let them down. Everything else could be brushed aside for the next few hours.
Donnie couldn't go back to sleep, his irritation at Tara's friend gnawed at him till he finally got up. The couch at the back room of the restaurant had been his make-shift home for the last few weeks. He switched the coffee-maker on and took out the key that opened the drawer where they put items that customers left behind. And there, amongst the wallets, cellphones and condom packets, was a thin blue envelope.
He called Tara immediately. If Willow Rosenberg would wake him up at god-awful hours to look for missing work documents, Tara could join the sleepless party too.
Her sleepy response was very much like his own an hour earlier. "Tara, your friend Willow called ridiculously early this morning. Seems that she left an important letter at the restaurant," he explained.
"What?" Tara hadn't fully woken up, but Donnie's mention of Willow was quickly clearing her mind.
"I told her I haven't seen anything, but I looked again just now, and her letter is here ... even addressed to her," he continued.
"She said it's an important document?" her mind was surprisingly able to piece together information, despite not yet functioning properly.
"Yeah, it's for work apparently," he confirmed.
"Okay, I'll call her," Tara pushed herself into a sitting position on the bed, fully alert now.
"I'll be here all morning, if she wants to pick it up," Donnie said. "And Sis, she owes us a big dinner. And may be even a session at the old phone booth."
"I'll tell her that," Tara replied.
She called and called, but Willow wasn't answering. She thought of leaving a voicemail or SMS. But then she had no way of knowing if Willow got the message.
If the documents were as important as Willow said ...
She dressed quickly and took a cab to the restaurant. Donnie was surprised to see her. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I can't reach her on her cell, I'm going to take it to her myself," she went to the drawer and retrieved the envelope, noting as Donnie had, that it was addressed to Willow.
"Do you know where she is?"
"She said something about the International Convention Center. It must be important." She was already rushing out of the door and flagging the nearest cab.
It was only when she had a moment to calm down in the cab that she studied the envelope. She broke into a shy smile when she read what Willow had written, about helping her buy a computer. Not only the words, the outside edge of the envelope was surrounded by hearts. She thought warmly back to last night, when they had said good-bye at her door with a kiss that was just as sweet as their first, but longer and more passionate. She was sure she had a smile as goofy as Willow's on her face when they finally parted.
She and Willow moved in different worlds. Hers was full of dinner parties and what some might term culture. Willow had a simpler life; her world, as Tara imagined it, was full of programs and statistics. Willow would have been someone she didn't give a second glance, had they encountered each other on the street. That night on the train, when the drunk attacked her, was the most frightening experience she had had to face in her entire life. And Willow put a stop to it. Willow stood up to an unstable, dangerous man twice her size, because he was assaulting Tara. There were no words for it, by that courageous act alone, Willow had captured Tara's heart. And over the past month, they had grown from two strangers to ... more. She knew that what she was feeling wasn't merely appreciation and gratefulness. The attraction between them that was so implausible on paper, had quietly grown into something so overwhelming that soon they would not be able to deny it.
Tara remembered the wish she made, all those weeks ago on the company yacht, tracing the pretend shooting star that Anya pointed out. She had wished to find someone to call her own, someone to understand her and to appreciate ... love ... her for her only.
"I found her," she said to herself.
She hadn't noticed that the cab had come to a complete halt. "Excuse me, miss. There seems to be an event up at the convention center, traffic is backed up," the driver interrupted her train of thought.
She rolled down the window and look ahead. There were cars everywhere. "Can you let me off here?" She paid the driver, adding on a generous tip and ran toward the exhibition hall. The driver commented that it was still quite a ways, but she didn't care.
One way or other, she was getting this to Willow.
Business wasn't going well at the make-shift Mina stall that the three friends had set up at the corner of the square outside the convention center. At first they were scared that the security guards would chase them off; or that they'd get arrested by the police for illegal hawking, but no one harassed them.
In fact, they had virtually no visitors during the hour that they had been in operation. Sales was dismal.
Andrew had taken the opportunity of the lull to disappear. Willow wanted to look for him, but Xander aptly pointed out that there wasn't much he could have been doing anyway.
Forty-five minutes later, Andrew reappeared with an armful of goodies -- comics, posters and freebies from the various publishing houses and exhibitors. Inside the convention center.
"How did you manage to get inside?" Xander asked.
"Nevermind that, look what I have!" Andrew excitedly shared his spoils of war.
Soon the three friends were engrossed in their favorite joint activity -- drooling over Mina. Xander had his eyes glued to a new photo of Mina's captivating ankles. Andrew and Willow sat shoulder to shoulder, heads buried in a comic, critiquing the production quality of the newest edition.
"Look, her figure is fuller on this panel, definitely compared with volume 1 she's gotten bigger," Willow commented.
"Breast gal much, Willow?" Andrew teased.
"At least I'm proud of it, Wells," Willow jokingly ribbed in return.
"I prefer her lips. They're so luscious, and swollen," Andrew hummed.
"Lips are great, they're so soft." At Andrew's mention of lips, Willow's mind immediately transported her to last night, and how soft and inviting Tara's lips were. "Not even close. No comparison," she murmured.
"No comparison to what?" Andrew questioned.
Willow snapped back to reality. "Wouldn't you want to know? Keep staring at Mina's lips," she said.
"Oh my god! I'm hyperventilating," Xander waved a poster in their faces as he joined them, deliriously pointing at yet another depiction of Mina in poses that were at once innocent and suggestive. "The colors are so vivid, I feel like she's moving," he said dreamily.
"Yeah, so amazing!"
"I can't wait to see some more. There's more inside, right?"
"I didn't even start on the action figures and toys section!"
"I'm going to melt, this is primo stuff."
They were so enthralled that none of them heard the footsteps of a figure hurriedly running toward them. A figure who, once within earshot of the trio, had skidded to a halt abruptly.
Xander looked up first and had to swallow the off-color remark he was about to utter.
"This is so great," Willow was saying. She caught Xander's troubled expression. "What?"
Xander nodded in the direction of the newcomer.
Willow turned around and her face turned as white as a sheet as her world fell into a deep abysmal hole.