The activities of the Scooby Gang, as they had taken to calling themselves, continued as usual at the beginning of the new school year. They were soon joined by transfer student Buffy, who despite her credentials as May Queen and epitome of cool at her previous school, decided to join them rather than the Cordettes, much to Willow's, and definitely Xander's, delight.
"Had enough of being a cheerleader," Buffy said nonchalantly while adjusting her fashionable earrings from LA. "I want a simple life for a change."
Jesse announced, much to the chagrin of the group, that his family was moving to Chicago, to follow his father's career. They had a good cry about it, then set about organizing the best going away party they could.
And so the five became four.
They started frequenting the Bronze, the best of a poor bunch of local clubs. Buffy, as usual, engaged in a fierce contest with Cordelia for the center of attention on the dance floor. Soon, though, both Tara and Willow started receiving their fair share of dance requests. Willow happily accepted them, but Tara, who was privately nursing an inkling of a revelation about herself, was more reluctant.
"Come on, Tara, it's just for fun," Willow egged on.
"I, um, don't feel like dancing. You go on ahead," Tara murmured.
"Tara, we have other people, boys, paying us attention. Us. We have to seize the opportunity, otherwise they slip by," Willow pleaded.
"I don't know how to behave with them. What do I talk about? I don't know what to say," Tara worried.
"It's just dancing. I mean, I have no clue either, remember I'm the one who's normally reduced to vowel sounds when I'm with a boy, but it's just dancing," Willow reassured.
"No, really, Will. I think I'll sit this one out," Tara said resolutely.
Willow took one last look at her friend, shrugged and joined the others on the dance floor.
Like all teenagers, the talk between the group soon turned almost exclusively to dating although it was all mostly codes and rumors.
Xander's awkward attraction toward Buffy was not lost on his three friends, who tormented and ribbed him relentlessly. Buffy laughed through it all, resisting the advances of someone she considered a brother with practiced ease. She had a bevy of admirers, from boy-next-door Owen to Percy the jock to Mr Intensity himself, Billy Fordham. She, on the other hand, had her eye on an older, darker, mysterious prey by the name of Angel.
Willow, who had started hanging out with the computer lab, had a bit of trouble with a fellow computer nerd by the name of Malcolm, who had taken a more than healthy interest in her. It took measures and words from Ms Calendar the computer teacher to dissuade the junior stalker.
Tara developed a good relationship with Mr Giles the librarian and the gang soon adopted the library as their base of operations.
Junior year rolled by and all talk turned to SATs and college choices. Willow, who was universally acknowledged as a genius, was already receiving feelers from colleges on the strength of her PSAT score and recommendations from her teachers. Barring any major mishaps she could go anywhere she wanted. All she wanted though, was her parents to tell her where they would feel most proud, but of course she never got an answer.
She was showing Tara yet another of the come-meet-us-and-see-what-we-have-to-offer letters one day, they were in her room, her parents out of town again.
"Look! They have these majors I've never heard of before. Bolivian-Belgian Studies, Amusement Park Engineering, Fruit Science. I'm sure fruits are interesting, but to have a whole major, that's freaky," she remarked.
"Obviously some people don't find it freaky," Tara responded without emotion.
"Hmm. No, not for me. I'm thinking computer science for sure, then minor in math or mechanical engineering," Willow said.
"Sounds very hard," Tara commented.
"Nah, I'm fine with them. What about you, Tare?" Willow asked.
"I don't know. I haven't seen my Dad for over a year, but last time he stopped by he said he was retiring, thinking of getting out of the army. If he does that he'll have to find a job in the real world," Tara said dejectedly.
"You could get a scholarship," Willow consoled.
Tara was quiet for a minute.
"I want to find a job, have my own life," she started.
"High school graduates are dime a dozen, Tara, are you sure you'll be able to find a living?" Willow asked, a little shocked.
"Then I'll have no choice but to crash at your place won't I?" Tara smirked.
"You know you're always welcome," Willow said sincerely.
"When you become the next Bill Gates, just how this high school loser fit in will be interesting then," Tara laughed.
One day, a few weeks later, Willow had her own little confession to make.
"I'll probably need to get a scholarship too," she whispered.
"Of course you'll get a scholarship, probably more than one, these colleges are falling over themselves to give you money," Tara said.
"No, I mean I'll need a full scholarship, tuition and cost of living, the works," Willow explained.
Tara quirked an eyebrow.
"I heard my parents, that other night they were both home, having an argument. It's all about shares and stuff. Mom was kinda crying and yelling at Dad, that the shares they bought earlier are sitting in the drawers, more worthless than waste paper. Seems like they lost a whole lot in their investments," Willow added.
"I heard Aunt Marie mention it too. She and my Uncle were talking about how much they lost, but then I don't think they put a lot in," Tara joined in.
"My folks did. It's all beyond me, my Dad has this special cellphone that he always answers regardless of what he's doing, and it's all talk about margins and floats and stuff," Willow sighed. "But I think most of the money's gone."
"Gone?" Tara was incredulous.
"Yep. I don't even want to ask about my college fund. They seem so lost," Willow said.
"Adults can be so blind," Tara agreed.
"Seems to be affecting a lot of other kids' families though. Except Buffy's. Mrs Summers is too smart to get caught. I heard Cordelia's Dad is in even worse hot water than my folks," Willow added.
"Strange, everyone loses. Who wins?" Tara wondered.
"My Dad explained to me once, how he makes a profit. He buys at a dollar, sells at two, and gets a huge windfall. Then the share keeps rising so he buys at three dollars and sells at four, and he makes another dollar. But it keeps going up and up so he buys at six dollars then suddenly it falls all the way to 50 cents," Willow explained.
"Still don't know who wins out of this scenario," Tara said, puzzled.
"Greed," said Willow. "No one wins."
"They deserve it, if you asked me," said Tara fervently.
Willow knocked on the greasy door with one hand while trying to balance a tin of cookies and her books in the other.
"Oh, hi, Donny. Is Tara in?" she asked the young man who opened the door.
Tara's cousin leered at Willow but said nothing as he opened the door and stepped aside so she could enter.
She walked into the living room and saw Tara in earnest conversation with someone.
"Hey Will, you're here," Tara greeted her and with a small wave, motioned for her friend to join her on the couch.
"Er, looks like you have company, it's okay, I'll come ba-" Willow muttered, making small movements to leave.
Tara jumped up, grabbed her arm and pulled her to the couch. "What? Don't be silly, you just got here. Come, I want you to meet my Aunt Hallie."
Tara's aunt turned and smiled briefly at Willow. She was well dressed, with aloof eyes and an air of sophistication the teenager had never seen before. She would not have been considered a raving beauty, but she had a style and way of holding herself that stood out.
"Aunt Hallie lives in Europe, she's back here to visit Aunt Marie," Tara introduced.
"A flying visit, I'm afraid. I can't be away too long," Hallie said, her voice low and deep.
"What do you do?" Willow asked curiously.
"I have an antiques business, mainly in London but I travel quite a bit, to buy merchandise," Hallie answered.
Willow caught Tara's look, a mixture of awe and longing. Neither girl had even been outside the US before and someone from Europe was so breathtaking, so exotic.
"When do you graduate?" Hallie asked in return.
"Next year," they responded together.
Hallie sighed. "I envy your generation, you have so much opportunities. Just follow the yellow brick road and you'll reach your destination."
"But the yellow brick road wasn't all plain sailing," Willow pondered.
"Life is an adventure, we need excitement, otherwise we grow stale and complacent," Hallie countered. "What are your plans after graduation?"
"College," Willow answered automatically. Her parents' financial woes aside, there was never a question that she would go.
"Do you have preferences on where?"
"Um, not really. Haven't thought about it yet," she hesitated.
"Willow has early entry offers from everywhere. She's a certified genius," Tara said proudly. Willow blushed.
"What about you, Tara," Hallie turned her attention to her niece.
"I want to earn lots of money," Tara announced determinedly.
"Whatever you do, it pays to know what you want at an early age," Hallie said, smiling.
Hallie took the girls to afternoon tea at her hotel. It was so much more luxurious than either Willow or Tara had imagined. They grew dizzy at the sight of the huge chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the glitter reflected by dozens of floor length mirrors lining the foyer. The china on the table were from England, the silver cutlery from Germany and much heavier on the hands than the usual forks and knives they were used to. The penguin-suited waiters efficiently and wordlessly serving the guests, making every single one of them feel like a celebrity.
"This must be expensive," Tara whispered to her aunt, wondering how she could afford it, whether this was her normal lifestyle. And growing even more determined to emulate her.
"It's just money," Hallie answered matter-of-factly.
"It's okay to visit once in a while," Tara added.
"It becomes meaningless, coming here everyday. The wow factor disappears," Willow added.
"Like I said, your generation is so much smarter than mine. You two are good friends?" Hallie remarked.
Willow and Tara smiled and nodded solemnly. "Best friends," they said.
"How about you, Aunt Hallie. Do you have a best friend?" Tara asked.
"I used to. But not anymore," Hallie answered though without any trace of sadness.
"Life gets more complicated as you grow older."
"Like there may be something I want to forget, but my friend keeps reminding me of it, even though she knows it's a sore point," Hallie explained.
"Why do you want to forget?" asked Tara.
"Why does she always mention it?" asked Willow.
Hallie continued, "Or the friends end up on opposite sides of an argument, or something very important, or they fight over possession of the same thing. Neither wants to budge, eventually there's got to be a winner, and therefore a loser. The friendship always lose."
The girls were too innocent to understand, "What's the big deal? If they're really such good friends they should come up with a compromise."
Hallie said nothing.
When it was time to leave, Hallie gave her card to both girls. On the thick, gold edged card was her name in flowing script and a telephone number.
"When I grow up I want to be like you, travel everywhere, have my own business, be independent," Tara said.
Her aunt kissed her goodbye and gave her a big hug.
"Look what she gave me," she showed Willow a small silver ring, two tiny palms closed over one another. Tara pressed the ring and the hands sprung apart to reveal a ruby heart.
"Wow, the hands holding a heart," Willow admired.
"For you," Tara offered the ring to her friend.
"Oh no, no! She gave it to you. I can't take it," willow protested.
"I want you to have it, you like it so much."
"I can't take it. It doesn't matter whether you wear it or me, it's just as pretty."
"See? We'll never fight over something like this."
It occurred to both girls at the same time, that perhaps the ring was not important. Would there one day be something sufficiently important that might drive them apart.
Both kept the thought to herself.