'Tis the Season
What Defines Us

Author: Zooeys_Bridge (Rachel)
Email: rsietz@gmail.com
Rating: PG-13 for language
Feedback: Absolutely. Please leave feedback on the 'Tis the Season Challenge thread on the Kitten Board.
Note: Many thanks to the wonderful Foomatic for help, advice, and all around guidance. This beta gets a gold star.
Note 2: I highly recommend(and humbly request) before reading this story you watch this magnificent video. This one is neat, too. Thanks!

Willow Rosenberg lost herself in motion. For a mind as busy and loud as hers, coming here was always a sweet respite as it dulled the spastic thoughts that tended to assail her brain. She'd returned one evening to retrieve a notebook she left in class and accidentally discovered a wide avenue of quiet possibility. The building was silent and empty, a far cry from the bustle and overload of students it held during the day. It was peaceful at night, and Willow felt she could take advantage of a more focused stream of work. After a day of shuffling around from classes and meetings all day, Willow felt she needed something that was hers. The quiet studio at night became the perfect place for the weary student to unwind. Light shone bright and still and brought everything-the presses, the typecases, the inks, the tables, the framed broadsides- into a beautiful contrast that Willow understood. In here, everything was as simple as black and white.

Willow loved books; they were part of the fabric of her being. They had kept her company during the lonely spasms of childhood when she didn't quite understand how to play with the other kids. Instead she took shelter in the library and took out books, because they had no choice but to go home and spend time with her. No realm was uninteresting to little Wllow. Fictions, non-fictions, maps, picture books, cooking books - all kept her company. Instead of skinning her knee on the blacktop or getting tangled in double-dutch, Willow became friends with the giants of history: Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Harry Houdini. Willow knew their stories, their childhoods, and challenges; she checked them out for two whole weeks.

Enchanted by size, heft, and weight, Willow took out books that were above her level of understanding but she didn't care, she just liked how they felt. "Birds of America" on par with her wee eye level at the tabletop, became a landscape of paper and color. Her eyes would widen as she turned pages as large as an elephantine ear. Her insides would sing. Paper was magic- it was hard and soft at the same time. She could wobble a page back and forth a million times, but if yanked in the wrong direction, it would tear. Strong yet supple was her world of books, and Willow was always looking for more. More of the tabletop horizon of crisp white space and tiny black letters that spoke to her, as friends often should. Willow grew up with books and she never forgot their companionship.

Form and content alike became a slick pleasure in which Willow loved to indulge herself as she continued to grow. A small paperback with its sections pried apart at the glued spine, old yellow novels with dog-eared pages that snapped off, hardcovers that lasted wear and mighty tear, thin books that fit perfectly at the end of the bookshelf, or the large expensive once-a-year birthday presents of hand sewn beauty, Willow loved them all. They had weight, texture, and she even if she did not read them, she loved to feel the pages or the cool contours of the outside of a book. They cemented her.

Naturally, when she discovered the world of letterpress printing, that little girl in her elementary school library squealed with joy. She became involved with books on a whole new level: Willow could create. She could give back. It was the most exciting thing Willow had ever done. Besides getting her very own adult library card, of course.

In printing, Willow poured her being onto a blank page. Like the delicious rhythm of turning pages, printing gave Willow's life cadence. Type cases were the shelves she'd lose herself in at the library as a child; each character, a book, had its perfect pod in the grand matrix of the alphabet. A row of k's lay happily in their slot while the h's seemed to lounge lazily until plucked up by the deft and busy fingers of Ms. Rosenberg.

Words were not something to take for granted. Each letter, each space was the result of labor that Willow loved. She reveled at the ache in her back after hours of being hunched over and the throb in her thumb from holding the type tight so it wouldn't tumble. Words were important and each letter had their weight in lead. They rubbed their being into Willow and her fingers would blacken in the wake of their passing.

Letters became a part of her. And she took part in them to make them whole. Willow breathed life into letters and made them march across a page proudly and with fierce determination. When ready to print, she washed her hands endlessly to prevent even the smallest smudge from disfiguring the unmarred beauty of empty space. Even the tiniest blemish would render that carefully designed space defunct, for it is the white that makes the black beautiful. It's the space in-between where beauty shines: in music, in typography, in subtle moments of life, the pregnant pause before the next roll of thunder or the mingling of shared breath before a kiss; space is what defines us.

And Willow had lots of space. There was an empty gap so large inside that not even books or letters or ink could fill. There was no bottom to the hole Willow lived atop. Space was in the way she cradled a pillow each night and pretended it had the feel and weight of flesh and blood. It was in the songs and stories she collected, hoping one day to share them in secret breaths and candlelight. Sometimes the space was so oppressing, it threatened to overcome and cripple the lonely and loving being that was Willow Rosenberg.

So instead, she structured the Empty. She gave it form and being and funneled it into design. Willow averted lonely heartbreak by transforming her space into something beautiful. At least there was some sort of end product in printing that she could touch and feel... even if it was only a dent of ink on paper.

But it was with ink and paper that everything would change.

It was a cold Thursday night when alone in the studio Willow was concentrating on giving a certain series of poems form from the cluttered masses of 14-point Times New Roman.

She'd been working for some time and was happily lost in her own little world when the door creaked open. Immediately, a sense of self-consciousness flooded her being and Willow quickly flushed at the interruption. She couldn't help but turn and glance at the intruder who dared disrupt her private cocoon. Some people flooded into a room and demanded attention in snobbery, beauty, or import. Some entered mid-conversation and others as if they owned the place. But this evening, a pair of rather timid, curious eyes framed in deliciously wispy light-brown hair peeked around the door. A mittened hand soon followed.

Pleased at the lack of brutish intrusion and willing to entertain, Willow straightened up in her stool and asked welcomingly, "Um, hi. Can I help you with something?"

The girl, who had been busy looking around the room, turned her head toward the voice and noticed Willow for the first time. "Oh, um, hey, i-is this The Golden Armadillo Press?"

Willow nodded, "Oh yeah, are you looking for Barry? He's only in on Mondays and Wednesdays."

A half-smile graced the visitor and she shook her head, "Oh, that's okay. I contacted him a few days ago though, actually. Asked if I could come in sometimes and work."

Willow couldn't help it, a piece of her stomach sank. But I'd only just started getting this place to myself! She forced a happy face, "Oh, that's great. Well, make yourself at home, I guess. It's nice and quiet at night, but I suppose you figured that out, huh?"

The girl shrugged out of her coat and hung it on the hook outside the door then turned back to Willow. "Yeah, but I kinda like it that way. It's much more intimate this way, don't you think?" She peeled a mitten off and offered her hand, "Tara."

Ok, so this might not be all that bad. No sense in being a Grinch about it, Will. Be nice. She clasped Tara's hand and sparkled a genuine smile. "Willow."

Willow's mind worked quickly and left half-verbalized ideas in the dust. The bits of her brain clicked ahead of how fast she was capable of speaking, which resulted in blabber, run on sentences, and general awkwardness. With the presses, though, she didn't have to worry about that. Words were already carefully chosen, selected, sculpted, and set for her. The presses, with their whirligigs and gears, operated on a speed that Willow felt paced her well. Once a job was locked up in the bed of the press, she slid easily into a rhythm of lining the paper, rolling the cylinder that inked the type and impressed the paper, picking the print up at the end, and rolling the cylinder back; rinse and repeat. It was similar to the ocean, with an ebb and flow of flesh and steel working together to make something beautiful.

Like an athlete concentrated on her game, Willow disliked the interruptions, distractions, and noise of working in a full classroom. Eleven other people created an awful lot of traffic and hubbub. That's why nights for Willow were so special. Separate from all that, the studio became a haven for the work she wanted to accomplish. She couldn't sink into the tide of printing or the meditation of setting type if there were bits of conversation and talk flying about the air.

But Tara seemed to at once quell the business of her mind and make it whirl faster. At first, tense that Tara would burst with idle small talk, Willow maintained her distance. She stuck to the corner where there was little reason for Tara to walk by and quiet her humming. But with each passing day, Willow grew more and more comfortable. Instead of their own private work bubbles clashing against one another in the small room, they seemed to melt at the edges and become one. The Willow and Tara Venn diagram meshed on an equilibrium. Before she knew it, Willow found herself in tune with Tara's little quirks- like sliced persimmons in a sandwich bag or the Motown station on the internet radio that she softly sang along with under her breath. Willow could sense the tickle of magic Tara brought with her when she came. Each time, Tara brought a little gift she'd share with Willow, "My little way of saying thanks for letting me invade your space." Willow smiled and her heart opened up a bit more each time. First it was bringing an extra cup of mocha, then it was a handful of Hershey's miniatures, a finger puppet, a new poem.

Willow started to enjoy coming in not to work, but to simply be in Tara's presence. Willow was captivated by the warmth and contentment Tara oozed. From the shuffle of her steps, the sway of her hips, to the curve of her neck and shoulder, Willow was starting to pay more and more attention to the anatomy of Tara and less to the anatomy of the letters.

Strangely enough, Willow didn't think she minded that much.

It'd been three weeks since their first encounter, and Tara felt more confident working in the studio. She'd felt awful intruding on what was obviously a private, special time for Willow. She tried to respect the space and withhold an environment of solitude, despite sharing a relatively small place. Tara loved working by herself, too. There was something to be said for the way the often repetitious motions of grabbing letters, forming words, making paragraphs, stanzas or pages took her away from the world. Here, Tara could work endlessly and yet think of nothing. Her mind was blissfully empty. Schoolwork and responsibility fell away until there was only her hands, working and forming art.

It was lonely, of course. But sometimes it was the only way to remedy the dull ache of having no one. Tara would take lots of little nothings and form something tangible and real. Tara stamped out the void with lead and ink. She loved to caress the imprint of the characters on the page. The texture gave Tara hope. Maybe one day she could be touched like that. Perhaps one day she'd discover impressions of skin instead of paper in love's arms.

It was paper that drew her here, away from her father who complained of her uselessness and the town that was dry, dull, and brittle and threatened to swallow her whole. Paper was born of tenacity and strength. The rags and fiber, beaten and broken, emerged into pulp and, once raised from the waters, became stronger and more enduring than steel. She liked to think it was a nice parallel. And it was. She'd done just that. Escaped to college and now thriving, Tara returned to paper; it was part of her.

But right now, she was flummoxed by it. At the moment, paper was a frame for the blank page that mocked her. Nothing poses a problem quite like a white sheet. Well, it's making for a good opportunity. "Willow?" she called. "Do you mind helping me for a minute?"

The redhead, busy engrossed in her own work, wiped her hands on her apron and met Tara at the table. "What's up?" she asked lightly.

"Well, see, I'm working on this poem, but it's not sitting on the page well. Something is off and I can't figure out what it is."

Willow studied the page in front of her. "May I?" she asked and motioned to the pieces of paper with text that laid atop the blank page.

"Of course," Tara replied. She watched engrossed as Willow's hands moved deftly, bringing new possibilities to light. Tara's body hummed being so close to Willow. She ached to feel how smooth her fingernails were or see how light could fall on the planes of her brow and cheek. She wanted to learn just how green those eyes could be.

"What if you dropped the first line down and made the sonnet number larger, like a title. Then the space between the top of the page and the bottom would correspond to your title page out here. That way the inside with the poem could sorta fit with the front like a puzzle."

Tara studied the proposed idea. "Oh, I like that a lot. How do you do that? Took what, a minute and you solved all my problems." Well, not all of them.

Willow shrugged. "I dunno, I think the paper pretty much figures it out. I just kinda...listen."

Tara taped down the layout and replied, "Well, you're a very good listener."

"Nah, your poem did all the work. I've never read that one before," she blushed as she read the stanza aloud,
"'thou canst prevail against my fears and fling
thy purple around me, till my heart shall grow
too close against thine heart henceforth to know
how it shook when alone. '

It's so intimate. Kinda reminds me of being wrapped in a blanket. But, you know, in word form."

Hearing those words aloud made her flush and Tara couldn't help but smile. "I like that, word blanket. Nice little metaphor for a poem. What does your blanket over there look like?"

Willow looked back at where she was working and explained, "Oh, that? It's nothing special, just a holiday card. I know it's a little early, but things get busy so quickly and I want to make sure they get done in time for the end of the semester."

"Oh, nonsense, they sound pretty special to me." So much direct conversation with Willow made her giddy and she couldn't help herself from asking, "Think maybe I could get one when they're done? I'd love to have a Willow original."

Willow's eyes lit up, "Oh, of course! But you were already going to get one, silly."

Surprised, Tara's brows lifted. "Oh! Well, looks like I'll have to think of a holiday something for you, too. A one-sided gift is something I just cannot abide by."

Just when Tara thought Willow couldn't get any cuter, she stuck out the tip of her tongue. "Well, Tara, I just guess we'll have to keep an eye on our respective mail boxes then, shall we?"

She nodded in agreement and beamed, "I guess we will."

Thanksgiving came and went and ushered frantic term papers, exams, and finals in its wake. December had never seemed so harried.

Willow needed some fresh air, and on Saturday went to town on an errand; a very straightforward errand involving fetching candy canes to tie to the cards she'd finished making. The wind was out full force and Willow was carefully bundled up in layers of winter gear. She shoved her hands in her pockets, quickly looked both ways before crossing the street, and bounced her way across to Serios, the local store.

She yanked the door open in anticipation for the wave of delicious heat that would warm her red nose but instead crashed face first into an outgoing customer. Abashed at her clumsiness, Willow burst into a flurry of apologies and kneeled down to pick up tumbled groceries. "Oh my gosh, I'm so so sorry, ma'am, I am such a klutz, I've never made this much food fall to the ground before. I completely wasn't looking. I'm so sorr-" Willow went cross-eyed as a finger laid itself on her lips which halted the cascade of apologies. She flicked her eyes from the finger to the wrist it was attached to and followed the arm up until she reached the rather bemused face of a rosy-cheeked Tara.

Butterflies flooded Willow's insides, but she managed to squeak out, "Oh, um. Hi?"

Tara smiled, "Hi, Willow. I see you're running a pretty important errand."

Arms full, Willow straightened up and put Tara's groceries back in their bag. "Oh! Yeah. But not really 'yeah', it's not that important of an errand. Just...candy canes. 'Tis the season and all." She shut up before her mouth could run too far ahead and put her hands back in her pockets. "Um, really sorry by the way."

Tara shrugged and replied with a grin, "Eh, s'ok. Good thing I didn't need eggs though, right?"

"Heh, yeah, guess so." Crap. I can't think of anything else to say. Since when do I have a hard time coming up with things to say!? She was about to open her mouth and say something that was probably very stupid, but Tara interrupted first. Thank goodness.

"Listen, Will, I'm actually running a bit late and kinda have to pull a hit and run here. But I'll see you...y'know, sometime?"

"Oh, of course! You, go. Enjoy your non-smashable foodstuffs and whatnot. See you later."

Tara flashed a smile before disappearing into the cold. Willow was enjoying the sight of Tara walking away when she was jolted by a brutish voice.

"Arrhmhm." A still-grinning Willow turned to see a disgruntled woman in front of her eyeing the door. Willow's eyebrows shot up, "ooh, sorry. Excuse me," she peeped before hastily scooting out of the way. Willow let the nervous in her tummy settle by releasing the passing encounter with a deep sigh and set off to find the holiday goods aisle.

It was thirteen days before the campus closed for winter break and after hours studying in the library, Willow was more than ready to unwind in the studio. She had that now-familiar tingle of excitement as she approached the Armadillo, hoping to see Tara already engrossed in her work. The light was on, but there was no sign of a coat or bag hanging outside. Willow pried off her bag, dumped her coat on a hook and crept inside. "Hello?"

Nothing was out of place. No drawer was left open, no ink was out, no dissolvent was out of the cabinet. Even so, Willow sensed something was off. She peered around the corner, called out, "Tara?" and checked the hallway once more just to be sure. Nothing. Perhaps someone had either forgotten to shut the lights before they left or whoever left would come back.

Willow shrugged, went to the table and pulled out her tray that was heavy with tied type on it, ready to work. It was then that she noticed an extra block of letters on the galley she hadn't made. Instead of leaving it out where it could get knocked over, she decided to get an impression, see whose work it was, and put it where it was supposed to be. Once she inked the surface of the letters Willow placed a piece of scrap paper on top and cranked the lever to the proof press.

Expecting to see a colophon or a poem stanza, Willow was both surprised and delighted to find - in 14-point Perpetua - a note: Dear Willow, I have a feeling you're searching for something. So am I. If you're willing to help me look for it, go to the 30-point Janson case. -Tara

Dumbfounded, Willow's hand shook and she sat herself on a nearby stool. Things like this didn't happen to her, things like this didn't happen to anyone; they were simply too good to be true. These sort of things happened in films, books, the stories she read or the dreams she had, but no-never ever in real life.

What if it wasn't real and she woke up in five minutes? Or what if it was a cruel joke? She paused. Well... so what 'what if'? What if it didn't matter? What if she went to the 30-point Janson case? Willow's life was made of such little things, surely she could afford to open a drawer and see what if.

While her mind was running laps, Willow's heart, forever in fear of being broken, dared to beat a little faster. And she opened the drawer.

Tara sat at a small cafe table in the building atrium, nervously gripped her mug, looked at her watch, and thought for the millionth time she'd done the wrong thing.

She's got a girlfriend. She's got a boyfriend. She thinks I'm a total dork. God, that was the stupidest thing I've ever done- lead a girl you barely know on a treasure hunt of poems around a type studio. Real slick, Slick.

Tara looked at her watch again.

It's been twenty minutes. Surely it's been enough time. Unless she didn't proof the block and didn't find the first note. Jesus, what if someone else finds that type? Ok, whoa, breathe, you can just go up and fix it after she leaves. Oh god, she's leaving.

Panic and Nervous nosedived into Tara's gut when she saw red hair in the doorway at the opposite end of the atrium. Willow's face was shrouded by the overhead lighting as she walked.

It was just all an accident, really. A series of events that happened completely by chance that resulted in what turned out to change her life. If she'd gotten up at 7:45 instead of 7:50 and had no problems accessing the internet to register for classes or even if she'd been pushed up at the cutoff in Kindergarten then she'd be roaming around this earth completely unaware that Willow Rosenberg existed. If things had gone just a *little* bit differently, everything would have stayed the same. And she just couldn't have that. Not now.

Not after living on glimpses of auburn and sparkles of freckles for weeks. She was delicious. Tara translated her into flavors and sounds: cinnamon and violins. She brought persimmons because they were the closest thing she could imagine to what Willow tasted like.

They didn't talk much. They didn't have to.

Tara looked up, "It wasn't exactly a holiday card."

Willow grinned and sat at the seat opposite Tara. She put her elbows on the table, but the smile ebbed and she soberly started, "Tara, I-"

Fuck, here it comes.

"I've only got one thing good for giving." Oh. It was then that Tara noticed how Willow clasped her hands together, how quickly she was breathing, and how fiercely her eyes searched her own. "I'd like to help you find what you're looking for, if you'd have me."

Nothing in the world shone brighter than Tara's smile that December night. Her insides glowed. Again, she looked at her watch. "Woodstar's still open. Get some hot cocoa with me?"

"I'd love to have hot cocoa with you."

They gathered their things and headed out, buzzing with a new kind of energy. It was all beginning.

Tara let the door close behind them when Willow turned and asked "So, do you pull an Indiana Jones on all the girls you meet?"


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