Disclaimer: Shockingly, against all evidence to the contrary, I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
A/N: Happy Halloween, everybody! I just wanted to write a little Halloween one-shot with our two favorite girls, so here it is, right in time for trick-or-treating. The story takes place with no Hellmouth and no magic, except for what exists in real life. I hope you all enjoy it.
— Once upon a time, on a Halloween night —
Tara arched a doubtful eyebrow at herself in the mirror. A striped shirt and a knit cap could barely be considered a costume, but unless her bank account now magically contained more than the $8.32 it had steadfastly maintained all week, she supposed that "Waldo" was about as good as she could manage.
Overall, she had to admit that college wasn't turning out quite how she had expected. When she had left home, bound for California of all places, she had expected things to be different from how they were back home. Here, she was supposed to make friends. More to the point, she was supposed to be able to be really "out" for the first time in her life. She had never been confused or ashamed of liking girls, but being openly gay in her hometown would have been like tattooing a target on her back, something she had no interest in. People gave her a hard enough time for her shyness, her stutter, her clothes, and her family; she didn't need rural homophobia as the cherry on top of her harassment sundae. But this was California. She had expected people here to be… nicer than normal people. People here were supposed to be laid-back and cool to everyone. If a girl couldn't get a girlfriend out here, then she couldn't get one anywhere.
Unfortunately, her preconceived notions of life in California hadn't really been borne out in her first few months here. As far as she could tell, people here were the same as they were anywhere else. And, to Tara's dismay, this meant that people still shied away from her stutter and walked over her if she gave them half a chance. And somehow, she always gave them more than half a chance.
But she would keep trying. She set her jaw and shared a nod with her mirror self. She would go to the Halloween bonfire tonight and try– yet again– to meet someone. Friends, study buddies, lesbian gay-type lovers– it didn't even matter at this point. She was sick of being isolated, and refused to keep hiding in her room when she could be out looking for people– people who must exist– who would like her back.
— Meanwhile, across campus, in Stevenson Hall —
Willow buttoned her pastel cardigan and adjusted her conservative plaid skirt, frowning at her reflection. It was an admittedly halfhearted costume, but passable. She just wasn't sure how many people would identify the character. She and Oz had planned a number of paired costumes (her favorite being Joan of Arc and God), but their sudden-yet-not-at-all-sudden breakup two weeks prior had rendered those impractical. She wasn't especially thrilled about 'going stag,' as Buffy called it. Part of her would rather just go as 'ghost' again, with a sheet over her head, but she knew Buffy would never let her hear the end of it if she did. Instead, she had dug out some of her old high school clothes, picked up a magnifying glass from the biology labs, and was going as Nancy Drew. It was admittedly lazy, but she wasn't really in the Halloween spirit this year.
Up until this point, college had just been like a more academic version of high school. She still hung out with Buffy and Xander, still dated Oz, and still spent all her time studying. It was somehow disappointing. She had expected… more. High school had been great, but she didn't want her whole life to just be an extension of Sunnydale High. She wanted something different. Maybe something new and exciting. Something more.
But now she wasn't with Oz. That was different. And she technically didn't see as much of Buffy and Xander as she used to in high school, so that was different, too. Maybe now there was room for something else, or someone else, in her life. A new hobby. New friends, maybe. Or maybe something more. She shook her head and shrugged out of the thought before it had a chance to settle in. It was silly to think about. She had only just broken up with Oz. She wasn't even through her first semester of college. It was probably too early to be thinking about these things. But even as she told herself this, she could feel her heartbeat quicken with anticipated excitement. Whatever change was coming had to happen sometime. So why not now?
— Later that night, in a sprawling parking lot on the edge of campus —
Tara took a cautious stepped onto the gravel lot, the chatter from the crowd wrapping around her like a smothering blanket. She had never been a huge fan of crowds. Their shouting and laughter grated against her, subtly rubbing in that none of it was directed to her. She pulled her red knit cap a little lower, covering her ears to muffle the sound.
Thirty seconds and I'm already regretting coming, she thought grimly. That was fine. She had promised herself she would stay for awhile, 'just in case.' In case of what, she wasn't sure, but it had sounded like a fair argument in her head at the time, so she figured she might as well stick to it. The fire had just been lit, and the giant woodpile crackled and gasped as the flames spread, stray sparks popping into view for a heartbeat before winking out again.
Tables of orange and black snacks and bowls of candy were set up on one side of the parking lot, a truckful of hay bales had been unceremoniously unloaded on the other, and tubs and chests full of ice and drinks were scattered about everywhere. It was technically a school-sponsored event, but she had seen students sneaking alcoholic drinks into the ice chests, and several of them had already lost any pretext of sobriety.
Tara scanned the crowd, hoping to see a familiar face, or at least a friendly face, but most people continued to glance over her like she wasn't even there. Ghost, she thought idly. That's my costume. I'm a ghost. Invisible and intangible. I should have just thrown a sheet over my head. She shook her head at herself and stepped closer to the woodpile, watching the flames creep higher and higher, the new wood hissing and popping as it ignited, throwing sparks and smoke into the warm night air. It was still early. There was still time for anything to happen.
— Meanwhile, on the other side of the parking lot —
Willow trailed behind her friends, having never felt so much like a fifth wheel in her life. Ahead of her, Buffy and Angel leaned against each other, Buffy wearing a tight leotard with some ambiguous logo on the front, complete with a little cape fluttering behind her. She had declared herself a superhero, although she didn't seem overly concerned with the specifics. She had allegedly tried to talk Angel into coming in an angel costume, but he had decided that Dracula was more his style. He was decked out in all black, with a long cape sweeping the ground behind him and a set of almost frighteningly realistic fangs in his mouth. Willow envied those two sometimes. They had been together for years, but where she and Oz had drifted further and further into indifference as time went on, Buffy and Angel had only fallen more into stride with each other, and even now, they seemed as close as any couple had ever been.
To the right of them, Anya and Xander hung off each other as well. He was dressed as a construction worker, which was easy, since he technically was one this week. Anya was wearing a full-body bunny costume, which Willow didn't dare ask the reasoning for. To Willow's chagrin, she kind of envied them, too. While she couldn't bring herself to like Anya, she had never seen Xander happier, and they did make a strangely fitting couple when it came right down to it. They had lingered in the honeymoon stage of coupledom for almost a year now, and while they had an occasional spat, it never seemed to last. She and Oz had argued, but it was always over the kinds of things that grated over time without resolution– his traveling with the band, her studying quirks, and dozens of other things that weren't likely to change.
Willow dragged her feet a little in the loose gravel of the parking lot, trailing behind both couples like a lost duckling. She could see the hazy smoke of the bonfire rising into the night, catching some of the faint yellow-orange glow, but the low flames were still masked by the thin spreading of people around the base of the woodpile.
She grumpily kicked a barrel of ice and drinks as she passed it, instantly regretting it as her worn shoe transferred most of the impact directly to her toes. Her scowl deepened. She could feel her impending abandonment as the two couples in front of her each inched in opposite directions, as sure as the sudden pain in her foot. Restlessly, she swiveled her head left and right, hoping to recognize someone that she could attach herself to. She felt like there must be someone here she knew, although she couldn't think of anyone in particular. Her sweeping gaze only paused when it fell on a red-and-white striped shirt and red hat, halting instinctively in recognition. It took her head a minute to register why she had automatically paused on that outfit in a crowd. When she did, a faint smile crept across her face.
The costume's wearer, a girl with long, light brown hair, glanced up as though feeling her gaze, but immediately jerked her head back towards the bonfire, crossing her arms nervously. The reaction made Willow unexpectedly curious, and she tilted her head slightly, trying to recall if she had ever met the brunette before. While Willow was thinking, the girl seemed to come to some decision, and she relaxed her shoulders a little and looked back up, offering Willow a hesitant smile. Intrigued, the redhead smiled back, but a hand on her shoulder spun her around before she could step closer.
"Come on, Willster! I see candy that needs some serious investigating!" Xander crowed, pulling her towards the snack tables. Apparently, he wanted to make her feel included before he and Anya wandered off to make out. Anya shuffled along behind them, long ears drooping. With her furry costume, she was getting some strange looks, but the upside was that people seemed eager to get out of their way. Buffy and Angel had already slipped away, to no one's surprise. Willow looked back over her shoulder, but Waldo was already lost in the crowd again, just like her namesake.
— Nearby, lost in the crowd —
A half hour into the night, Tara stood in the smoky border of the fire, setting an empty bottle of cider on the ground and kicking herself for coming to a party where she obviously knew no one. She had tried to smile at a few people, and even managed to say hello to a few, but none had opted to engage her in conversation. Even that redhead who had watched her and smiled back had immediately walked off with her friends. Maybe I should just go, she thought grimly. This is stupid. I don't know what I was expecting. Pretty girls don't just waltz up for no reason and say–
"I found you!" called a cheery voice from behind her. She froze, then turned around cautiously, expecting the voice to have been addressing someone else. Instead, she came nose-to-nose with a redhead wearing preppy pastel clothing, a magnifying glass tucked into the pocket of her plaid skirt. It was the girl from before. Tara blinked, then offered a hesitant smile.
"Um… yeah! You found me! You solved the mystery, Nancy!" she said with fake enthusiasm that sounded silly even to her own ears. She ducked her head and hoped the firelight hid her embarrassed blush. The redhead just grinned wider, looking almost relieved.
"Thanks for actually recognizing me. Everyone else just thinks I decided to show up dressed like a 1960s cheerleader."
Tara tried to smile back, but in her nervousness, it came out half-smothered and crooked.
"It's a… um… s-subtle costume." Tara had to stifle a flinch as her voice stumbled. No, not now! If this was the one time in her life the Fates or the gods or whatever Powers That Be decided to finally drop manna on her in the form of a friendly girl, she didn't want to scare her off by her inability to say a clear sentence. Luckily, Nancy didn't seem to have noticed the stutter. She was still safe. For now.
"I guess so. I usually do something more elaborate for Halloween, but this year…" Nancy shrugged sheepishly, smoothing out her knee-length skirt. "I guess my heart wasn't in it."
"Me neither, I guess," Tara admitted, tugging conspicuously at one striped sleeve. "Not very elaborate. O-or original." She bit back another flinch as her voice betrayed her again. Again, Nancy didn't seem to notice it.
"I thought it was funny. Waldo. Especially since there's such a crowd." She looked around at the swarms of students around them. "I noticed you before, actually."
The fire flared next to them, and Tara saw that Nancy's eyes were a warm green color that caught the firelight like polished glass.
"I remember," Tara murmured.
"My name's Willow," Nancy said, and Tara quickly solidified the name in her head.
"T-Tara… um, Tara… is my name." She offered another crooked smile. Nervousness was making her heart beat like a drum, but Willow's smile was warm and reassuring.
"Nice to meet you, Tara," said Willow.
"Nice to meet you, Willow," Tara echoed. "Um… a-are you a student here?"
"Yep. Just started freshman year." Willow grinned, bouncing on the balls of her feet excitedly. Her animation put Tara at ease, as though the redhead's earnest energy was filling the silence left by her own shyness. "How about you?"
"Same. I just started." The fire was starting to reach its full size, the light and heat washing over the crowd and the hisses and gasps of the flames converging into a low, airy roar. "Do you like it here? So far?"
Willow started to nod, but then hesitated.
"It's nice. It's just… I don't know. It's a lot like high school. I guess that's fine, but I thought things would be more different. Do you know what I mean?"
Willow's eyes sought hers imploringly. Tara almost sighed in relief at her statement, glad that she wasn't the only one with that feeling.
"I do. I-I thought it would be more different, too." She felt herself take a step closer to Willow as the ambient noise grew louder. With the closer proximity and better light, she could see the girl better, and it made her heart flutter a little. Her face was impish and friendly, highlighted with freckles, and her hair caught the firelight and the wind just right to itself look like dancing flames. She sucked in a deep breath, imagining the crisp air filling and steadying her. "I just… I guess I just expected more." At this, Willow gave her such an odd look that she instantly corrected herself. "I mean, I know maybe that doesn't make sense–"
"No, it does," Willow said, her voice low and sincere. The green eyes smiled at her, and their intensity made Tara's breath catch in her chest. "I just thought I was the only one who thought that."
"Oh." Her lips paused in that position as she tried to think of the right response. "No, you're not alone in that." She tried to rally her flagging optimism. "But there's still plenty of time, right? I mean… it's still pretty early. There's plenty of time for things to change. For more to happen." She had been talking about their college careers, but to her own ears, it sounded like she was talking about that night. She didn't know much about Willow yet, but she hoped that by the end of the night, they would be at least on their way towards friendship. Or more, whispered a voice in the back of her head before she could clamp it back down. There was no reason to get carried away. Too much optimism was a dangerous thing.
Willow turned her head for a moment to look at the roaring bonfire, and the light and smoke surrounded her like an aura.
"Yeah. I guess it's still pretty early for us. We have plenty of time."
Tara's heart felt like it might burst from swelling hope. It had been a long time since anyone had included her as part of a 'we' or 'us,' and the idea that Willow could be talking about that night almost had her head spinning. She wondered if it was possible to die of optimism.
She began to respond, but a mouthful of smoke reminded her that her lightheadedness could also be partly smoke inhalation. The winds were shifting their way, and the smoke now encircled them like a cocoon. For a moment, the crowd was hidden by the gray haze, and it was like she and Willow were alone together. Unfortunately, whatever she had been planning to say was cut off as her lungs rejected the smoky air and she fell into a fit of coughing. Her eyes were closed against the stinging smoke, but she felt Willow take her arm and lead her away, several steps upwind of the fire.
She quickly caught her breath in the cooler, fresher air, and when she opened her eyes, Willow was offering a concerned look, hand still resting on her arm. Her touch almost burned. It had been a long time since someone had intentionally touched her, especially with friendly intentions.
"Sorry," she choked out once the smoke had cleared from her lungs. It left her throat feeling rough and dry.
"It's okay. I guess the winds changed. Are you alright?" The hand on her arm still didn't move.
"Yeah. I'm fine." She nodded, but her voice wheezed, giving her away. Willow nodded to the side.
"Do you want something to drink?" There was a large bucket near them, bottlenecks sticking up from a layer of ice like newly sprouted plants in a pot. Tara nodded gratefully, and Willow finally released her arm in order to dislodge two bottles. One was pressed into Tara's hand, and she gratefully uncapped it, drinking deeply to relieve her throat. Willow, after some great effort to open hers, took a small sip. "Tastes like cider," she commented.
Tara nodded, lowering the bottle from her lips and self-consciously wiping her face on one striped sleeve.
"It is. It's alcoholic, though." She thought she should probably warn Willow, in case she hadn't realized the fact. Tara had already had one earlier, but still felt pretty normal. She just wasn't sure if that would be true after a second one. Willow frowned at her own bottle.
"Oh. I don't really drink. Underage and all that. And my friend had kind of a weird experience with it once." She took another hesitant sip and shrugged.
"Me neither," Tara admitted hastily. She didn't want Willow to get the wrong idea about her. "This tastes okay, though." Willow nodded, still giving the bottle a curious look. "Um… Do you want to s-sit down somewhere? I think they hid some chairs over in the hay bales."
Willow followed her gaze to a disorganized scattering of the yellow bundles.
"I thought that was a maze." She cocked her head like a puppy hearing a new sound. Tara chuckled at her expression.
"I think it was supposed to be, but they didn't feel like moving them all once they were unloaded," she explained.
"Okay, then. Let's go sit down." Willow acquiesced with a grin, and let her lead them across the gravel lot, walking close enough that their hands and arms brushed each other with every couple of steps.
— Across the parking lot, in a secluded shelter of straw —
Willow sighed as they sank into a pair of oversized beanbag chairs tucked away in the hay bales and sipped at their cider. It was tasty, but the cold drink coupled with the chill night made Willow shiver under her pastel cardigan.
"Cold?" Tara asked, tilting her head in the redhead's direction. The brunette sat relaxed in her own chair, apparently not bothered by the chill. Actually, now that she had seen Tara up close, Willow saw that her hair wasn't quite brown, but it also wasn't entirely blonde. It was more like golden-brown, the color of rich honey. Either way, it was pretty.
"A little," Willow admitted, trying to shuffle deeper into the beanbag for warmth. It wasn't very effective. Tara bit her bottom lip for a moment.
"You… you could sit over here. You know, i-if you w-want." The brunette tugged her hat a little lower to cover the blush that tinted her ears. Willow had noticed that she occasionally spoke with a slight stutter, but it didn't make her voice sound any less friendly. "I'm pretty warm."
Willow smiled at her for a moment, trying to decide if the offer was made seriously or as a joke. Either way, she decided to throw caution to the winds. She was cold, and her new friend did look pretty cozy.
"Alright." She hopped swiftly from her beanbag to Tara's. The brunette's face showed surprise for a split-second before a shy grin took its place. Willow settled in, the chair forcing their sides and legs together. Heat from Tara's body sank into her own, warming her all the way to the bone. She had to stop herself from snuggling closer. "You were right. You are warm."
"Glad to be of service."
Willow was surprised by how comfortable it felt to sit settled against the brunette. Tara was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger, but something about her was so open and good-natured that she couldn't help but feel comfortable around her, like they had known each other for ages. She found herself instinctively trusting the other girl, and it seemed natural to indulge in a little touchy-feely-ness given the circumstances. Willow shifted a little lower so that their heads were level, and Tara's blue eyes as she looked at her were warm enough to melt her all the way to the core.
"Why aren't you cold?" Willow asked, nudging her gently with her elbow. Tara gave a little shrug, her shoulder shifting against the redhead's.
"I guess I'm used to it being a lot colder for Halloween." She took another sip from the cold bottle without shivering, possibly as a demonstration.
"Not from Southern California, then?" Willow guessed, smirking. Tara shook her head, and her hair tickled Willow's neck.
"You are, I'm guessing?"
Willow nodded, and Tara's wayward hair tickled her again. She had to suppress a giggle.
"From Sunnydale, actually. I stayed in town for college."
"Because of family?" Tara guessed, one eyebrow raised to punctuate the question. At the thought, Willow's smile faded partway into a grimace, and she turned her head in the direction of the distant crowd, wondering what had become of Buffy and Xander.
"Because of friends," she corrected, drumming her fingers against the glass cider bottle, suddenly restless. "They're actually floating around here somewhere. I just… didn't feel like hanging with them tonight."
"Oh." She felt Tara's breathing pause for a moment. "Why not?"
Willow turned her head back towards her new friend. It brought their faces only inches away from each other, close enough that she could feel Tara's breath on her lips. Her mouth went dry suddenly, and she returned her attention to her drink, an unexpected blush warming her cheeks.
"It's silly, I guess. They're all paired off. I was the fifth wheel tonight." The admission and the blush felt a little embarrassing, but Tara's gaze was steady and nonjudgemental.
Willow tried to smile reassuringly, but it came out twisted and wry.
"Don't be. It's self-inflicted. I just broke up with my high school sweetheart about two weeks ago." She had almost managed to forget that fact, but now the memory rose back into her consciousness, and she felt strangely guilty.
"Oh." She thought she felt Tara shift a little closer, a silent offer. Willow leaned gratefully into her side, appreciating the unspoken support. "What happened? If it's not too personal." The brunette was quick to add the second part, as though she had just remembered that they had only met a few hours ago. Willow's grimace melted into a genuine smile. It didn't feel too personal at all. The brunette was easy to talk to. She thought she could probably tell her anything.
"I guess… we just realized we weren't that into each other anymore. We were pretty much just together out of habit. There was no there there, if that makes sense." It felt good to say it out loud, especially to a third party. Saying it made the truth of it clearer in her head.
"No sparks," Tara offered helpfully. Willow nodded.
"Not even a little one. Not even the shrimpiest spark that always got picked last for kickball."
Tara chuckled at her joke. Willow felt the vibration more than she heard the sound, and the effect made her shiver, although she wasn't anywhere near cold anymore. The brunette was so relaxed and radiated so much warmth that Willow couldn't even feel the chill in the air. Part of her recalled that alcohol made the heat rise to the surface of your skin, and wondered if that was a factor. Tara's bottle was nearly empty, and it might not have been her first. She was still perfectly coherent, but Willow wondered if the drink was starting to take an effect.
"That must be weird for you, after being together for so long." Her soft smile from Willow's joke lingered, but her voice had returned to its good-natured seriousness. Willow almost nodded at the question, but changed her mind at the last moment.
"Kind of. To be honest, we probably should have called it off ages ago. Aside from inertia and mutual friends, there wasn't much holding us together." Again, saying out loud made it feel obvious. She wished she had met Tara sooner. She might not have dragged things out with Oz as long as she had.
"Does she go to this school?" Tara asked curiously. Willow took a moment to realize what 'she' was referring to, then blinked almost owlishly as it sank in. She? She mentally pressed 'rewind,' trying to pick out if she had subconsciously implied that Oz was a girl. "Or he," Tara added hastily, apparently noticing the confusion. "Sorry. I shouldn't have assumed. I just…"
"No, it's okay. Really. It's okay." Willow was surprised to find that she meant it. She hadn't expected that particular assumption, but it was clear that Tara didn't mean any offense. "But… yes, he does go here. Another reason we stayed together, probably. It was convenient." Like microwave pizza. And about as tasteless. "Just no sparks."
Tara looked down into her now-empty bottle of cider. There was a long pause, but Willow let it stretch while Tara gathered her thoughts.
"There have to be sparks, I think," her new friend said quietly, still looking at the bottle. "If you're going to be with someone, you need to have sparks for each other."
Willow watched her new friend as she spoke, finding herself almost entranced by the seriousness with which she said this, as though she were telling Willow a deathly important secret. She hadn't expected such an severe response.
"Yeah?" she prompted. She wished with an irrational fervor for Tara to continue. She needed to hear more. There was a long, yawning pause before the brunette went on.
"Yeah. Love… it should glow, I think." She could feel the heat from Tara's face more than she could see it in the dim light, but knew that she must be blushing. "It should grow. And spread. And burn. It should keep you warm, and light you up." Although they weren't in sight of the bonfire, Willow could have sworn she both felt and saw its presence in Tara's eyes as she spoke. "You shouldn't settle for someone who doesn't at least give you sparks."
The very slight lilt in her voice suggested that she might not have said as much if she were entirely sober, but Willow was still transfixed by the earnest ardor with which Tara expressed herself.
"You don't think that just being comfortable and happy with someone is enough?" she found herself asking. Even as she said it, she realized how much she wanted the answer. She wanted verification that breaking up with Oz had been the right decision, that she had a right to expect something better. And there was something else, too, something that whispered at her below the surface, too soft for her to make out the meaning.
"Maybe. I just… I feel like there should be more. I think we deserve fire. I think people deserve to be so in love that they just can't help themselves." Her forehead knitted, as though she were thinking about something painful. "Love should make you do crazy things. Not literally crazy, like stalking or something, but it should make you brave. It should make you fight for what you want, even if it seems crazy at the time."
She raised her eyes to Willow's, and the redhead couldn't look away.
"What if you can't find anyone like that?" Willow whispered. Another reason she hadn't broken up with Oz. One she hadn't wanted to admit to herself. Even if she deserved something more, what if she couldn't find it? Tara smiled again, and looked back down to the spot where their knees touched.
"I think there are enough sparks to go around. M-maybe it's silly, but I think people use words like 'random' o-or 'coincidence' too much. When you run into someone, I think it's usually for a reason." Her voice sounded a little more normal now, like she had snapped out of a trance, and Willow raised an eyebrow at the sentiment.
"Kismet?" she asked, part of her skeptical. Tara shook her head slightly and met her eye again.
"Maybe. Or maybe just practical reasons. Like, if you run into a girl– or a guy– at a coffee shop, maybe it means you live or work in the same area, or you have the same schedule, or you both prefer fancy coffee drinks." Her eyes twinkled "O-or maybe you both have an expensive, crippling caffeine addiction. It's not a really close connection, but it's not random, not really."
Tara's attitude was contagious, and Willow found herself smiling again.
"Interesting hypothesis," she commented thoughtfully.
Tara blushed and ducked her head, apparently realizing how much she had said.
"Sorry. I don't usually babble this much. Maybe I'm a drunk philosopher," she admitted. Willow took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly.
"It's okay, I like it. Trust me, I have my babbling moments, too." She felt Tara relax against her, and her long fingers curl around her hand, creating another source of warmth. "So, the two of us talking here isn't totally random?"
Tara shrugged, looking down at their joined hands with interest. Her bowed head caused her hair to partially hide her expression in shadow.
"You tell me. I've already rambled too much."
Willow put on her best 'Nancy Drew, detective' expression, and even pulled out her magnifying glass with the hand not holding Tara's.
"Well, we're both here, at UC Sunnydale and at a Halloween bonfire. So we wanted to go to college in Southern California, but not Los Angeles. And we both like Halloween, even the dress-up parts." Through a gap in her curtain of hair, she saw Tara's lips curve up. "We might have read the same books as kids, otherwise I might not have recognized Waldo and you might not have recognized Nancy Drew. And we both decided to put together lazy costumes based on characters from books, so that probably says something about us." She felt and heard a soft laugh from her companion. "And we're both unattached, otherwise we'd be off somewhere with other people."
The theory had the benefit of appealing to her logical side and her romantic side at the same time, and she marveled at Tara's heartfelt explanation of it. Now that she thought about it, she had to wonder if they had been fated to meet that night, by both science and magic. Even if not, she was very, very glad that they had met. She raised her hand to push the soft curtain of honey-toned hair back behind Tara's ear, revealing another crooked smile on her face.
"Sounds like you've just about nailed it, Nancy. So what do you think of my theory?"
Willow didn't have to think very long to come up with her answer.
"I like it."
Smiling beatifically, Tara settled back in the beanbag chair and turned her gaze up to the sky. Willow, practically glowing from the inside with contentment, felt the comfort of her current position combine with the lassitude caused by the alcoholic cider. With a sigh, she leaned her head onto Tara's shoulder and followed her gaze up, taking in the stars that lay in the dark behind a misty film of clouds, like sparks lost in a haze of smoke.
— Zero inches away, on the same beanbag chair —
Tara breathed deeply, smelling the woodsmoke of the bonfire on the other side of the parking lot, but also catching the scent of the redhead who was nestled, warm and solid, against her shoulder. She had wrapped an arm around her back to hold her in place, and everything felt wonderful. She had never felt so lucky in her life, and she silently whispered her gratitude into the sky to whoever or whatever was listening.
She couldn't believe she had almost decided to not come to the bonfire, or had wanted to leave early. She couldn't imagine missing this, missing Willow. Her limbs were heavy and warm and sleepy, but her heart had never felt more alive, and it bounced joyfully against her ribs. She wondered if Willow could hear it singing. Their breathing had fallen naturally into sync, like their bodies were built to work in tandem.
She couldn't say for sure how long they laid like that, curled against the barest hint of chill in the air, but it was long enough for the cider's liquid courage to run out, and she found herself marveling that she had revealed so much to the girl in her arms. She wondered if she would have said so much without the alcohol's influence. She decided that maybe she would have. It was easy to talk to Willow. Her eyes conveyed so much emotion– interest and appeal and warmth. She had told Willow about sparks, but her feelings had already built themselves up into a roaring Halloween bonfire as big as the one across the parking lot from them. With some Fourth of July fireworks and rainbow Christmas tree lights on top. And maybe, just maybe, Willow had scrounged up a few sparks for her, too. Instinctively, her arm tightened around the other girl, and she felt Willow shift her head to lie more comfortably against her. Maybe I am lucky after all. Or maybe good things come to those who go out and search for what they want. Who knew?
They were interrupted by someone walking by. It was a boy with short auburn hair and baggy clothes, turning his head like he was searching for something as he passed the entrance to their hidden nook. When his sweeping gaze settled on the pair of them, Tara noted recognition in his eyes. She might have just ignored him, except that beside her, Willow immediately tensed.
"Oz," the redhead murmured, her brow furrowed. Tara's heart sank, her roaring sense of optimism shriveling into a kitten's mew. She didn't recognize the name that Willow said, but she recognized the tone. That was definitely the ex-boyfriend. The newly ex-boyfriend. Willow awkwardly rose out of her embrace, leaving her side cold and empty. Tara offered her a steady hand to push up from. Once on her feet, Willow stood like a statue, looking so uncertain that Tara rose from the chair as well, crossing her arms and standing at Willow's side for support. A silence yawned between them, finally and reluctantly broken by Tara.
"Um… no costume?" she asked the newcomer, raising her eyebrows. The boy just wore baggy jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. He turned his gaze to her for the first time, and Tara thought he might be sizing her up. They seemed to be about the same height.
"Did Nancy Drew have a boyfriend?" he asked after another long pause.
"Ned," Tara supplied shortly.
"I guess I'm him, then." His tone wasn't openly aggressive, but it was firm, and Tara instinctively took a step back. Willow stepped forward.
"I don't think Nancy Drew had an ex-boyfriend, though, so try again," she said, unconsciously mimicking Tara's stance and crossing her arms. Tara herself took another step back. The boy, who Willow had called 'Oz,' didn't look thrilled with this answer.
"Alright then." His eyes glanced around them for a second. "I'm a werewolf."
"I don't see fur. Or teeth." Tara couldn't see Willow's face anymore, but her voice was skeptical. Oz shrugged.
"It's not the full moon," he defended himself.
Even from a few steps behind, Tara heard Willow chuckle, and the sound made her heart sink all the way down to her shoes. These two had history. They had a rapport. They had probably been together for years. Compared to that, two weeks broken up was an incredibly short time. And the few hours that she and Willow had known each other didn't even register. Now, she predicted, Willow and Oz would talk and banter. They might even make up. Because, Tara finally had to remind herself, there was a distinct possibility that Willow was straight. She had never officially said otherwise. So Tara should leave now. And maybe, if she was really, really lucky, she would run into Willow on campus someday, in the future, when it hurt less, and they could become friends. Until then, the sting of implicit and inevitable rejection burned Tara wherever her skin had made contact with Willow's. Whatever happened, she knew that she didn't want to stick around for the rest of this conversation. She had already had more luck in one night than she had any right to expect. Now, she should just go home before the universe righted itself and the backlash knocked her flat.
With more regret than she felt she should have after only one chaste night with Willow, she turned and walked away, retreating back towards her lonely refuge in the dorms.
— Meanwhile, 10 feet away —
Willow shook her head at Oz, who stood in front of her waiting for her to speak.
"Look, I really don't think we should talk here," she said finally. Part of her was glad to see him again, but Tara's speech from before had really resonated with her, and she knew that they couldn't get back together again. It wasn't fair to either of them.
"Why not? We have to talk about it sometime." His voice had the same tone it always had when they argued– not loud or angry, but stubborn and forceful.
"What's there to talk about? There just aren't any sparks left between us." She echoed Tara's words. He didn't back down, so she tried a gambit. "Besides, Oz, I heard about you and Veruca." It had only been a rumor, but she had heard that Oz had slept with a girl in another band, and she could easily guess which one it was. The guilty look on his face only verified what she had suspected.
"Oh. You heard about that?" he said, having the grace to sound sheepish about it.
"Yeah, I heard about that. So clearly, we've both moved on."
He opened his mouth as if to say something in his own defense, maybe that it hadn't meant anything to him or that he regretted it, but he closed it again before any excuses could escape. Instead, he just nodded grimly, looking up at her from a bowed head.
"So, I guess that's it, then."
"Yeah, that's it." She sighed tiredly, still feeling some sympathy for him in spite of herself. "Look, Oz, we both deserve better than each other, okay? We deserve to be with people who make us feel sparks, or even fireworks. People we love so much it burns us up inside. We should be with people we want so much, we can't not be with them. And that's obviously not each other. Not anymore, not for a long time."
Her message, Tara's message, seemed to sink in, and his expression softened.
"I guess so," he admitted, his posture slouching back into his usual casual stance. "I do miss you, though."
"Me, too." It was true. She didn't miss kissing him or sleeping with him, but she did often miss talking with him and laughing at his sense of humor. "I wouldn't be opposed to being friends, though. Maybe after a little time apart, just to be safe."
He smirked at that and nodded.
"I think I'd like that."
Willow relaxed, for a moment relishing the closure of the moment. She knew that this was the right decision, and was a little proud of herself for making it.
"So we're cool?" she asked, offering him a conciliatory smile.
"Very cool," he answered with a nod.
"Good." She took a step back, pleased with how the whole conversation had gone. She would have to thank Tara for her advice. "Well, I should probably get back to Tara. We were just–" her voice faded as she turned her head back towards the now-empty beanbag chairs where Tara had just stood. "She left…"
The fact struck Willow harder than she expected. They had really been getting along. They had already felt like friends. It had been unbelievably nice sitting and talking with her. There was still a tingly phantom warmth along her right side, where Tara's body had pressed against hers. Her frown deepened. Where did she go? And more importantly, why did she go?
— Meanwhile, already halfway home —
Tara could feel the weight of her sulking like a physical burden. This was stupid. Why did I think I would do well at a party? That's the absolute last place I should be.
She knew she was just being bitter for no reason. She had had more luck that night than she deserved, and she should probably just be grateful that things had gone as well as they had. She closed her eyes for a moment and tried to call back the feeling she had had, lying back with Willow curled against her, breathing together, watching the stars. She had never felt warmer or safer or better than she had at that moment. It had been like all of the things in her life, good and bad, had just been leading her to that little string of perfect moments.
She broke from the memory with a sigh, and the crisp air she breathed in was tinted with other, sweeter smells– coffee, chocolate, spices, and teas. She was walking past a coffee shop. She almost kept walking, but the scent stopped her in her tracks. It only took her a moment to decide that, near-empty bank account or not, she at least deserved some hot chocolate and a cookie after a night like this.
Shaking her head at herself, she walked through the door, bell jingling over her head. The night wasn't over yet, and neither was her life. There would be other nights, with other perfect moments, she was sure. Maybe even other girls, although she didn't really like the thought of that at the moment. Even through her regret, a steady heat warmed her from within, a gentle glow, like a candle. Not the bonfire and rainbow fireworks that had raged earlier in the night, but something more manageable and realistic. Things would be okay. There would be more to experience. It would just take time. She would have to be patient. And maybe a little optimistic.
— Meanwhile, closer than either of them realize —
Willow couldn't quite dispel her frown as she began walking back towards the dorms. She just left… It still niggled at her, uncomfortable but persistent, like an itch she couldn't quite pin down. She thought I was abandoning her… The thought bothered her. A lot. It didn't make sense that it would bother her this much. She hadn't even met the girl before tonight. But there was something about her…
A jingling sound startled her, and she paused as a couple passed in front of her, exiting a coffee shop. She was about to continue when the smell of the shop followed behind them like a wake, dowsing Willow with the scent of hot drinks and baked goods. In an instant, she decided that she could really use something sweet and caffeinated to lift her spirits.
With a slight pull, the glass-and-steel door swung open, blasting her with a wave of vanilla-scented warmth. She stepped forward into the humid air, already imagining a mocha and some kind of sugary baked goodness. As her eyes adjusted to the light, a flash of red caught her peripheral vision. A familiar shade of red. She turned towards it and was rewarded by the sight of a girl with a red-and-white striped shirt and honey-colored hair partially hidden by a red knit cap, seated alone at a table for two against the wall, chipping away at a chocolate cookie and steaming mug of tea.
She knew she should be stunned, but something about finding her again seemed incredibly fitting. Incredibly right. Scientific Kismet. And what's more, in the glow of happiness she felt at seeing the girl again, she recognized something she hadn't counted on before. As she took in Tara's form, slouched slightly in sadness, profiled in the warm, orange-yellow light of the coffee shop, she recognized something inside of her– sparks.
She took a few steps forward to close the distance between them, a smile enveloping her features as the sparks coalesced into a small flame, like a flickering candle– small now, but with the potential to grow and spread until it burned and shone like the sun. Until it became more.
"I found you."