Mrs. Summers had been home from the hospital for a week, and had invited Buffy's friends to the house for dinner. It would be her way of thanking them for being there for the Summers family during and after her hospitalization. They had even helped make some changes to the house to make it more comfortable and more accessible for Joyce while she was recovering and wheel chair bound.
The dinner was very casual. They ordered Chinese food and lounged around the living room so that Joyce, who was still bedridden, could be part of the group.
It was after the dinner dishes had been cleared and dessert and coffee was passed around that Faith had announced that she would not be returning to New York with Willow. She would stay at the Rosenberg's, work nights at the Bronze, and continue her schoolwork at UC Sunnydale. All this so that she could help with Joyce's recovery.
They had all been stunned.
Faith had, uncharacteristically, thought of everything. Jesse's dad agreed to give her a job at the Bronze. She had also been accepted for late transfer to UC Sunnydale from the City University she was attending as a part-time student. Once she was sure Willow would be alright going back to New York without her, the two girls talked to Joyce. Joyce had often been surrogate mother to both Faith and Willow, and both girls wanted to do whatever it took to help in Mrs. Summers' recuperation.
It was easier for Faith to make the rearrangements to move, since Willow had that internship with IBM and was about to graduate from NYU. Willow had talked to her parents to make sure it was alright for Faith to stay. She also had the interior of her van modified so that Faith could take Joyce to physical therapy.
Faith staying in Sunnydale meant that Buffy would not have to take off from school or quit her part-time job to help her mom and take care of Dawn, because Faith had arranged her schedule around that of Buffy and Dawn.
Faith's dinner announcement had taken place over two weeks ago. Now Willow found herself cleaning out Faith's locker in the record store, sorting out those things that would need to be sent to Faith in Sunnydale and what things could be packed away in the boxes of Faith's things from the apartment.
Willow was the only person who knew EXACTLY why Faith had been so determined to stay and help. It was why Faith had been panicked in the first aid tent at the concert, why Faith had been so stoic in the hospital waiting room, why Faith had not backed down from Riley, and why Faith had not argued with Tara when the blonde had insisted that Faith was not in any shape to drive.
Willow had been trying unsuccessfully not to think of the blonde since she had last seen her in the hospital. Because when she did think of Tara it was with a mixture of longing, admiration, embarrassment, anger, and confusion.
Longing. Willow could feel her skin burning everywhere when she thought Tara. There was no denying that the minute Willow looked into Tara's eyes she was drawn to the blonde.
Admiration. Tara had been so kind and gentle. Willow still couldn't believe that Tara had left the concert to drive them to the hospital. And just watching Tara interact with Dawn moved something in the redhead that she could not yet name.
Embarassment. Why, why, why did she give Tara the present? Why did she ask Tara to coffee AFTER she had given the blonde the present? Why hadn't she waited? Why didn't she just have the guts to ask the girl for her damned phone number?
Anger. In all honesty, yes had the blonde agreed to coffee and had Willow been brave enough to pursue more than a friendship with Tara, well, it might have been complicated. But as she had told Tara, it didn't have to be. It didn't have to be complicated at all. They could have just gone for coffee. And after that they could have had lunch. And after that they could have had dinner, gone to a movie. Yes Willow was going to school in New York, but she only had a year left. Less than a year, because the school year is much shorter than an actual year! Ten months! Minus the winter break because she would definitely be going back to California for that month.
Which is why there was confusion. When Tara had hugged her in the hospital, Willow had been so caught up in the feel of Tara's arms around her that she had almost missed what Tara said. Almost. Tara had whispered to Willow that she would wait. But somehow Willow couldn't be sure if Tara was talking about opening the gift, or if the words were loaded with heavier meaning. Would Tara wait for Willow to return to Sunnydale? If so, then why couldn't they have coffee? Why hadn't Tara given Willow her phone number or e-mail, or asked for Willow's phone number or e-mail?
And why am I sitting here holding Faith's dirty socks and thinking about Tara? Ew!
Willow shook her head to clear her thoughts and quickly pulled the rest of Faith's things out of the locker. The last item was a denim jacket hanging off a hook on the back of the locker. When she pulled the jacket off, Willow was surprised to find several pictures taped to the locker wall.
There were a few pictures of Faith and Willow with Buffy and Xander. Willow recognized them as having been taken during their high school graduation, and one several hours after the ceremony, in front of the charred remains of the school. Apparently one of the graduating students thought it would be a great senior prank to throw small fireworks into the empty classrooms and rig them to blow just as the ceremony was finished. Unfortunately someone had knocked a gas pipe open in one of the science labs and part of the school had been set on fire. The building had not been asbestos tested, and went up in flames before the firefighters could do anything about it. The picture in Faith's locker showed them in their caps and gowns holding pencils with roasted marshmallows stuck on the ends. It had been Xander's idea.
Willow carefully peeled these pictures off, followed by a few of just her and Faith, taken more recently at various points after the girls had moved to New York.
Finally, Willow came to the picture in the center of Faith's little Sunnydale gang collage. It was a photo of two girls, taken when they weren't looking during a movie night at the Summers home. The brunette had been sitting on the floor in front and towards the middle of the summers couch, one leg stretched out in front of her and the other bent and slightly out. She had her hands behind her head and was leaning her head back slightly, grinning at the girl sitting behind her on the end of the couch. The other girl had both legs tucked under her. She was leaning with her right elbow on the armrest and her head was resting on the knuckles of her right hand. She was smiling at the girl sitting on the floor and twisting a lock of dark hair in her left hand. Willow remembered exactly when this picture had been taken because she was the one that took the picture of Faith and Buffy talking, oblivious to everyone around them. Something about the way Faith was looking at Buffy had made Willow take the picture, and now as she looked at it more carefully, she realized that the something was mutual.
Smiling, Willow pulled the picture from the wall and set it neatly on the pile of things to send to Faith. She packed the things that would be boxed up into her bag first, then put the things to be sent on top. After a final check, Willow zipped up the bag, shut the locker, and moved to sit back on the couch to wait for the band to finish playing so that she could say goodbye.
Ten minutes later Mandy sat down next to Willow and pulled a guitar case out from under the coffee table.
"So, got everything?" She asked as she put her guitar away.
"Yeah, I think so." Willow patted her carry-on.
"It's not gonna be the same without her around here, you now."
Willow shrugged and smiled sadly.
Mandy noticed the redhead's downcast look and placed a comforting hand on Willow's shoulder.
"Hey, you look like you could use a night out. Come with the others to the show tonight."
Again Willow shrugged.
"I, thanks, but I don't think so."
"Hey Red, look I can tell something's bugging you besides Faith staying in Cali, I mean, you were staring at her socks! Seriously, you could use the distraction."
When the redhead just stared at the guitar sitting in the open case on the floor and did not respond, the singer prodded a little more.
"C'mon Red, we're doin' the open mike thing. You love the open mike thing! Ya gotta come!"
Willow had often gone with Faith and the other store staff to hear the band play at bars and clubs, but had never actually gone on her own. Really, she still thought of them as Faith's friends and coworkers, and wasn't sure if she would be comfortable there without Faith around. But Mandy seemed genuinely concerned about Willow, and had actually noticed that Willow loved the 'open mike thing.' Making her decision, Willow looked up and smiled.
"Do you guys know any Michelle Branch songs?"