"So, Tara," Sheila began after swallowing a forkful of salad, "How did you and my daughter meet?" She smiled across to the young woman.
Willow, who had been sitting next to her girlfriend, looked over and met Tara's gaze. The blonde turned back toward Willow's mother as she spoke, "We m-met on the bus," as if reading Willow's mind, Tara chose not to mention the embarrassing circumstances surrounding their first meeting.
"Is that so," Sheila cast a quick glance toward her daughter, "Willow is usually as quiet as a mouse. How on earth did you manage to get her to speak?"
While Tara fumbled for words, Willow chose to counter her mother's statement. "I'm not that quiet, mother. I'm president of the debate club, I know how to-." She stopped after having revealed what she thought was an embarrassing piece of information. Willow mentally slapped herself but suddenly didn't feel so self-conscious when she caught Tara's admiring glance.
Ira also caught the twinkle of pride in Tara's eyes and smiled to himself. Even though his wife wouldn't think so, he certainly knew more about people than she thought he did.
"What year will you be this coming year?" Donnie asked, choosing to speak up rather than stare at his nearly empty plate. In his short time after arriving at the camp he had sensed a change in his younger sister and wanted to know a little more about the person who had caused it.
"A senior," Sheila quickly answered, "and then it's off to college somewhere. Harvard, Brown, the options are unlimited. Willow is such a brilliant student."
The stricken look on Tara's face quickly passed before anyone could notice. And while Sheila regarded her daughter with a parental sense of pride, Willow was trying not to scowl.
"What are you doing this fall, Tara?" Sheila asked, pausing, "I'm assuming you have recently graduated."
Donald shifted a little in his chair and regarded his daughter. Since the death of his wife, Tara had been needed more at home. College had been an option and even though Donald had urged his daughter to accept the scholarship she had received, the blonde had decided against it. She wanted to be where she was needed.
Tara saw her father's expression and flashed him a smile as if to say that everything was all right before answering Sheila with a new air of confidence. "I'm going to take some time off to work. College can wait." She was, after all, being truthful and it wasn't uncommon for recent graduates to take time from school to establish themselves before jumping into the demands of college life.
Before her mother could object to Tara's view of college, Willow spoke up. "That's wonderful. I've actually considered doing that too." She knew that the comment would ruffle her mother's feathers, and ruffle they did. Sheila looked as if a ghost had passed into her body and taken refuge in her ashen face.
Surprised as well, Ira looked from his daughter to his wife and knew that this wasn't his fight. Whatever his daughter chose, he would accept it. And if Willow wanted to take some time off, she could... even if that meant he would have to deal with the burnt.
Sheila decided against continuing the conversation with her daughter and quickly changed the subject. "Oh, look, they're having a gathering in the lounge," unsubtly, Sheila eagerly mentioned as she spied a flyer hanging on the back wall.
As the others followed her gaze toward the flyer to see for themselves, Willow reached underneath the table to briefly squeeze her girlfriend's hand. She playfully rolled her eyes and mouthed "sorry" with a quick head gesture toward her mother. Tara, who understood what Sheila was attempting to do, grinned and shook her head to indicate that Willow didn't need to apologize.
"Well, then, shall we?" Ira asked, waiting for the others to either nod or shrug before he slid back from the table. They sauntered along with the other guests, each person in their own private thoughts and/or conversations.
Willow and Tara hung back a little as their families walked ahead. "Your m-mother is...," Tara stopped, not wanting to upset Willow in any way.
She never counted on Willow filling in the blanks herself. "Crazy? Overbearing?"
"She only wants what's best for you, Willow," Tara said, defending the somewhat stubborn woman.
"I know and I love her for it," the redhead sighed, "I only wish she would let me decide what's best for me."
The couple walked along in silence until they reached the crowded lounge. The speaker was beginning his sentence as they entered. "First, I would like to thank the staff and our organizers for doing a fantastic job these past few weeks. And also a big thanks to the parents and guardians for letting us borrow these wonderful young adults. And, last but not least, to the young men and women who have taken time out from a summer of video gaming to join us here." He received some short of chuckles from a few in the crowd before continuing.
"We have one final seminar for any of you who may be interested. It's just a little something the staff put together," he indicated the group standing nearby. "For those of you who are interested please follow Susan and Kylie to the north lawn."
"Come on, Ira, I want to see what they're planning," Sheila said, determined as she started after the small group following the two staff members. Tara and Willow looked at each other. The redhead hesitated, unsure if she should follow and also unsure of what Tara was going to do. Was her father going to tell her that it was time to leave? She took a fleeting glance toward the eldest Maclay while fighting the urge to reach for Tara's hand.
"Can we go, dad?" Donnie asked. Willow's crestfallen features melted Tara's heart. The blonde opened her mouth to speak when Donnie continued. "I've never been to one of these kinds of seminars. I'm curious," he finished with a brief meaningful look toward his sister and her friend.
Even though he knew that there were things that he needed to get back to, Donald agreed. He would make up for the extra hour on the road.
Upon reaching the grassy area, the group noticed that few people had followed the two assistants into the lawn. A gathering of 10 or so people sat scattered between the four picnic tables in the courtyard.
"I am sure that many of you have heard of this activity before. In fact, I've even seen it on a few television programs." As the first assistant explained the general rules of the activity, Willow, Tara, and the others joined the group.
"However," Susan continued, "we're going to do it a little differently. I know that the majority of you are strangers and this, I hope, will make it an even more interesting game. I want you to look to someone sitting close to you and name their "animal" and how you chose it just by looking at them. If you're the "animal" being named and you don't agree, you may choose a more suitable one. Now, before we start, I shouldn't have to remind you that this is a fun and friendly game, so let's please keep it that way."
Kylie started first by naming Susan's "animal" and the reasons why she chose it. As the animals and answers grew more diverse, Tara suddenly became aware that she and Willow's turn was coming up soon. While the blonde searched her mind for the perfect answer, she tilted her head and watched her girlfriend. Willow, also aware that their turn was approaching, sat calmly. She felt Tara's eyes on her and shot the blonde a quick smile before turning back to the current speaker.
Just as the last person across from Tara wrapped up his answer, all eyes focused on the next person. Realizing that it was her turn, Willow thoughtfully stared at the table before meeting Tara's eyes, "An owl." The blonde raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything as Willow continued, "Wise, curious, truthful... with patient, endless eyes, watchful yet secretly fierce. She's a huntress in her own right."
Willow finished but continued to stare into Tara's eyes. To one or two on-lookers, it seemed like part of the exercise, but some in the crowd knew otherwise.
Tara cleared her throat in an attempt to moisten the dryness. All eyes were on her now but only one pair mattered. As she continued holding Willow's gaze, she spoke up, "A feral horse." A tiny corner of Willow's lip lifted. "She's misunderstood, fearing someone else's control over her. Her shyness is barely contained by the wild spirit hidden underneath her eyes, yearning to be free."
Luckily, Tara was the last person to go. The others breathed a sigh of relief that they had gone before, having now felt that their answers were inadequate after hearing the last two.
The group leaders quietly ended the session with a few words and a thank you to everyone who had come. People slowly broke off, disappearing in separate directions.
"I still can't believe that man called me a goat," Sheila said as she agitatedly headed toward the restroom area, Ira in tow. He allowed himself a small smile while he fought to catch up. Sheila hadn't mentioned a single word about their daughter's answer during the seminar and he knew she wouldn't. Sheila Rosenberg only saw what she wanted to see. And Willow's heart moving observation was the last thing on her mind.
Donald Maclay, however, did notice the way in which his daughter and Willow had looked and spoken of each other. His expression was unreadable as he watched the two leave the picnic table. "Tara," he called after the blonde. Still buzzing, Tara whispered to Willow before joining her brother and father.
"It's getting late, we should be leaving," Donald said. The blonde paused before nodding, solemnly. "We'll wait in the car while you say goodbye to your friend." Tara nodded again and watched as they started toward the parking lot. She continued to watch until they disappeared behind a building. How could she find the strength to turn and face Willow?
Willow knew. She knew from the moment that she saw Tara's family walk away that it was time for Tara to go. When the two bodies had disappeared and Tara still hadn't looked back, she approached her.
Soft tears bulged from the reddened lids of the Tara's eyes when Willow moved in front of her and lifted her chin. "Come with me," Willow said, her voice thick as she attempted to control her emotions. Tara gripped Willow's hand as they walked toward the trees and stopped just beyond the point where the concrete path turned to dirt.
Willow dug into her pocket and pulled out a small, folded piece of paper. "My address is also in there," she said, quietly, as she placed the paper into Tara's palm and pressed her hand over it.
The blonde inwardly cursed herself for not thinking to do the same as she looked down at Willow's hand over hers. Reading her expression, Willow went on, "This is not goodbye," her lip trembled as she fought the sob that had crept up into her throat. "I love you, Tara." She shushed the blonde with a finger against Tara's lips. "I never knew I could feel the way I do when you're around. Everything I know... knew, it... it doesn't matter anymore. You are the only person I could be me around, and I love you for it. I l-," her voice squeaked, "I love you, Tara."
Tara tried to speak but couldn't. Each word escaped as a jagged moan as her chest tightened. "Don't speak," Willow said, seeing how hard it was for the blonde to managed words. She also didn't want Tara to speak for fear that her girlfriend's voice would weaken her resolve to be the "strong" one. She couldn't let go yet. Letting go made everything real and somewhere... somewhere in the back of her soul she knew that it wasn't over. That it would never be over and that she would never let go. Her cheeks tingled as tears fought to break through.
Salty tears stuck to her lips as Tara inhaled deep enough to catch her breath. She swallowed a couple of times, enough to clear a small airway and enough to whisper, "I love you, Willow. Oh, god, I love you so much." It felt as if dry rocks had lodged themselves down her throat as a fresh wave of tears came forth.
Willow's voice grew hoarse as she struggled to speak; rather, she wiped her fingers over the blonde's face, smoothing as many trails as she could. Their lips met, desperately. Memorizing every inch, every memory left amongst the taste of salt. Leaving the tiniest space for breath, their mouths repeatedly closed against one another as their arms engulfed each other's bodies, frantic.
When there was no choice but to pull away and gasp for breath, Willow leaned her forehead against Tara's. "You have to go." They were the words she never thought she would have to say. Tara pulled back a fraction to look into her girlfriend's eyes. "Go." Willow repeated. Her eyes were so red and dry that she could hardly blink.
Tara pressed her lips to Willow's once more, squeezing the redhead's hand before releasing it and turning away.
No goodbyes. It was too hard to look back so she hurried across the yard as fast as she could.
When Tara was far enough away, Willow let the first sob burst free. Crashing against every nerve in her body, the redhead leaned against a nearby tree as she finally let go.
Donald glanced at his daughter through the rearview mirror and sighed, too quietly to be heard, as he started the car and drove away.
Tara opened the letter, recognizing the paper as being from her journal. Not bothering to wipe her face, the blonde began to read as the car turned left into ongoing traffic.
Willow stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine, books cradled within her arms. Her mom had been a little upset about her decision to attend Sunnydale University rather than a more prestigious college, but Sheila knew that she couldn't complain. The simple fact that Willow had chosen to further her education had been enough.
Taking the short walk to her dormitory, Willow entered the building and headed straight toward the main desk.
"Hey, Tony," she smiled at one of the RA's as she rounded the counter and stopped at the collection of resident mailboxes.
Tara had written her almost everyday since they'd parted over a year ago and Willow had written back to each letter. Even though the phone calls were scarce, the redhead appreciated reading her girlfriend's words just as much as hearing her voice. Opening the small box, she spied a light blue envelope amongst the campus newsletters, and grinned. Stuffing the newsletter between her books and briefly holding the envelope between her lips, she closed the box and practically skipped from the building.
The bell rang, signaling the beginning of another rotation of classes as Willow made her way to one of the small benches nearby. Taking a seat, she pushed her books aside and quietly regarded the little blue envelope. The redhead had the same reaction every time she received one of the letters: She took a deep breath, tracing her fingers of the name and address of the addresser before carefully breaking the seal. She scanned the page, frowning only a little when she saw that it was undated, and began reading.
The letter had been much shorter than Tara's previous letters and was something that bothered the redhead a little. It seemed that in the past few weeks, she and Tara had been drifting apart. And even though Willow thought it was impossible, she couldn't shake the feeling. Within the letter, Tara had briefly mentioned the volunteer position that she'd taken, which, to Willow, meant that her girlfriend's letters would lessen even though Tara had promised to keep in touch.
She sighed and closed the letter. Clearing her head, she grabbed one of the books from the pile beside her. With the soft click of her pen, she opened the journal and flipped to a blank section, the last blank pages of Tara's journal.
Pausing to think, she heard the soft crunching of leaves, followed by the only voice she wanted to hear more than anything in the world.
"What are you writing?"
Willow looked up into the brightest smile she'd ever seen. Wordlessly, she stood up. If possible, Tara had grown even more beautiful since the last time Willow had received a picture from the blonde. As the shock became less, the redhead's eyes drifted lower.
"Your shirt," Willow whispered, staring at the bright, yellow shirt.
"Like it?" Tara asked, grinning as she looked down at her shirt. In small bold letters, it read:
'Sunnydale Volunteers, Property of UCSD'