The Ring Talks
Part 2: Under Construction
What’s built in the heat of summer needs to be able to withstand the cold of winter.
Chapter 16: Learning Curve
She opens the door just as I’m raising my fist to knock, startling both of us. “H-h-hi,” she says as she catches her breath, her hand still over her heart.
“Hey, Tara. Got a minute?”
“I- I’m going to the Espresso Pump to meet Willow. She just had l-lunch with her mom, and needs a latte recovery. Possibly two.”
I nod in understanding. Being Sheila Rosenberg’s daughter is not for the faint of heart. I’m surprised Willow’s few experiments with alcohol have been so restrained, now that I think about it. But I suspect her caffeine addiction is getting worse. …Not that I have any room to talk. “Coffee sounds good, but don’t let me invite myself. Maybe just let me walk with you?” She frowns for a moment, probably wondering what I’m up to, then steps out into the dormitory hall and gives me a nod of agreement before locking the door behind her.
We’re off campus and onto city streets before small talk about class schedules and the awful plumbing in the dorms gives way to silence. She keeps glancing over as we walk, clearly waiting for me to explain why I sought her out. I guess I should take the hint.
“So, uh, right before we went into the Initiative… That conversation we had… I know I didn’t ask, and I probably should have… But you didn’t mention…?”
“I haven’t told Willow what we talked about, if th-that’s what you’re asking. Or anyone.”
“Thanks.” I look over at her, and I feel something running alongside my sense of relief. Trust, maybe? I didn’t know I could trust her, and I wasn’t trying to test for it, but she passed, anyway. I can’t think of a single reason why she wouldn’t have used that conversation to reassure the ever-worried Willow that she was incorporating herself into our group, but she didn’t. “It, uh, it turns out it’s mutual.”
“He cares about you, too?” Am I imagining that subtle smile on her face? Is she trying not to laugh at me? No, I don’t think I’m imagining it.
“That obvious, huh?”
“To me. N-No one notices me most of the time, so they also don’t notice w-w-what I see.”
I nod in understanding. Spike’s too loud to go unnoticed, but he still sees a lot of the undercurrents when we’re all together. I guess the outsider’s point of view comes in a quiet version.
“It’s more than that. He said… I don’t know if he meant to say it, or even meant it at all…”
I sigh in relief as we turn toward downtown. She gets it, and isn’t going to make me say it. As of this moment, Tara is well on her way to becoming my new favorite person.
“You aren’t there yet?”
“Yet. Ever. Shouldn’t be. Can’t be. I’m sure Willow’s told you some stuff. As in Angel stuff. I shouldn’t even be in as deep as I am.”
“Then w-why are you?”
I stop in the middle of the sidewalk and stare at her. Realizing I’m no longer beside her, she turns back to look at me after only a couple of steps. That’s my cue to respond, but I don’t have words.
Why am I? Why shouldn’t I be! We’ve turned out to be really good friends, and just because there are feelings… I mean, no one is getting hurt. Yeah, Riley got dumped, but it’s not like that was only because of the friend no one knows I have.
Except Tara. Tara knows. She’s looking at me, still waiting on me to speak, and it dawns on me that she’s not confronting me. She’s asking a legitimate question. A good question, actually.
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do,” she says softly, as she waves for me to close the gap between us and continue our walk. We make it to Main Street before she says, “And it’s ok, you know. He’s done some good, and he’s been loyal to you guys. Lately, at least. And Buffy? Caring about someone isn’t generally considered a bad thing.”
“My life would beg to differ. Besides, it’s weird, isn’t it?”
There’s that subtle smile again. “So is your life.” She shrugs. “So where’s the conflict?”
“History. His. Mine. The world’s. No one is going to get it. I mean, I don’t totally get it.”
We spot Willow loitering outside the Espresso Pump at about the same moment she spots us. There are the usual eager waves of greeting, but even at this distance, I can see her brow is wrinkled up. She looks a little confused. I guess it makes sense. She wasn’t expecting me.
“So the conflict is that it’s weird, that there’s history, and what other people think. Gotcha.”
I glance over at her, surprised at the patronizing undertone. “You don’t pull punches, do you?”
“Not when I know what I’m talking about.”
I follow Tara’s gaze to her girlfriend, whose furrowed brow has now grown into a frown. She quickly plasters on a smile when she sees we’re looking her way again. “I guess you kinda do. …But it’s still weird.”
“Embrace it,” she says, just before we get close enough to Willow for her to hear us. I keep a step back while they hug in greeting. When they break apart, Willow immediately turns to me, still with a questioning look in her eyes.
“Hey, Buffy. What are you doing here?”
“I, uh, ran into Tara on her way here, and she told me you weren’t having a great day. I thought I’d check in. How was lunch with your mom? The usual?”
“I told a word play joke about Jung, and got a twenty minute lecture in response.”
“So the usual.”
“Pretty much. What were you guys talking about? It looked kinda serious.”
“Dorm plumbing,” Tara answers promptly. Yep, she’s definitely in the running for favorite person today.
Willow makes a disgusted face. “Ugh. I don’t know what’s worse, lunch with Mom or our water pressure.” She gestures for us to go into the coffeehouse. “But I really need a vent session, if that’s ok.”
“Totally ok,” I assure her as we head inside.
I don’t know why I don’t want to tell her what else Tara and I were talking about. Maybe it’s because I don’t know what to call it. Maybe it’s because she’ll feel like I’ve been lying to her for months. Maybe it’s because I kinda feel like I have. Who am I kidding? I know why. Because of Angel. She’ll think it’s the same thing all over again, but with a lot less enthusiasm than she had when we were 16. And because of Riley. She basically hand picked him for me, and I dumped him for… Well not for anyone. Technically. Ok, a little bit ‘for.’ But maybe Tara’s patronizing undertone is right, and what Willow thinks shouldn’t be a deciding factor. Deciding. What is it I’m deciding, exactly? I’m not really sure.
“Are you sure about this, Buff?”
“Giles is serious about revoking the invite.” I shrug against the passenger’s seat. “It’s got to be done.”
Xander parks the car in front of the hardware store. “What I mean is, do either of you know what you’re doing?”
“How difficult can it be?”
“Maybe I should be the one to help with this.” He frowns. “But with a slayer bodyguard? In case I manage to anger the chipless beast?”
“And that is why I’m going to be the one to help. You’re going to be nervous around him. I won’t be.”
“But I know my way around home construction stuff. You and Spike are more the destruction types. Why don’t you just tell Giles I’ll fix the wall, and he can go ahead and pull the invite?”
I shake my head. “The goal is to keep the invite. Spike helped us with Adam. That makes him one of us, and Giles’ place is where we meet.”
“He got something in exchange. A big something. And now he’s back to being dangerous.”
“I’m dangerous, and you like having me around.”
“You don’t kill humans.”
“And now, neither does Spike.”
Xander sighs in exasperation, and I choose to ignore it. I know an unchipped Spike hanging around makes him nervous, but I’m willing to wait for him to get over that. He seems to be giving up for the moment, anyway. “Have you heard from Riley?”
“He left a message. He wants to meet up to talk, but it sounded like he meant ‘date,’ not ‘meeting.’ I haven’t called him back.”
“Why not, Buff? The guy really went to the mat for us on the Adam thing. I think he’s proven he’s worth a second chance with you.”
“It’s not about the mission, Xan. It isn’t news that Riley will fight for what he thinks is right. I just… I don’t see a future for us, you know? He’s military. Rules, order, clear lines in the sand. Science and guns instead of magic and swords. It’s like he comes from a totally different planet.”
“Hey, you think I don’t know about different planets? I’m dating Anya.”
I laugh. “She’s more one of us than Ry, and you know it. Face it, Xan. The Scoobies live in the same grey place that I do: Half in the human world, half in the demon one. Anya fits right in.”
He leans back in the driver’s seat, thinking about that. “If that were the case, she’d fit in better than I do, and I’d be the problem.”
I turn in my seat to face him. “You guys aren’t getting along?”
“We mostly are, but I worry sometimes. The thing is, Buff, she doesn’t fit in, not in the human part of things, anyway.”
“Are you saying you want to date someone who does? Should I go find you a female Riley?”
That makes him crack a smile. “Nothing against the guy, he’s great and all, but… It’s Anya. I can’t break up with her.”
“You mean you don’t want to.”
I open the car door. “So just embrace it, Xan. Our lives are freaky. Dating fellow freaks comes with the territory.” I step out of the car and close the door behind me.
Xander gets out of the car and says to me across the roof, “Did this hot new perspective come from dumping Ry?”
“It came from realizing what matters, and a fully human pedigree shouldn’t be at the top of the list, real like Riley or faking it like Anya. I see you guys together a lot. When you and Willow aren’t trying to coach her to act like she’s not an ancient demon who’s not used to living by our society’s rules, you two seem to really enjoy being together.”
“So teach her the rules, but give her some leeway. And definitely tell Will to back off, too. We didn’t all learn to fire a tranq gun in high school because she’s a magnet for normal. We’re Scoobies. We don’t do normal. Anya isn’t an exception.”
Xander comes around the car and leads us into the hardware store. “Do you think I’ve been too hard on her?”
“I think…” I bite my lip as the store’s front door closes behind us. “I think we’d all be better off if we didn’t expect people who aren’t 100% human to act like they are.”
“Are we talking about you and Riley again?”
“Maybe a little.”
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