"Well, here goes," Willow said to herself, drawing in a deep breath. She swung open the door to the lecture hall that would be the home for the first class of her college career. The room was enormous-much bigger than any of the rooms in high school had been. She wondered momentarily whether she'd accidentally wandered into a movie theater. The seats were small and packed tightly together into three sections, with two narrow aisles beginning in the back of the room and converging at a low platform in front, behind which a chalkboard commanded the entirety of the wall space. Willow imagined how the room would look with a student in every chair, and a wave of claustrophobic nervousness halted her. 'Should I sit in the back, where I'll be lost behind a sea of people? Nobody would see me, but it'd be harder to hear the professor and read anything on the board, not to mention that the teacher might think I'm a slacker. Should I sit in the front? Maybe if I couldn't see all of the other students, I wouldn't feel as much anxiety. But I'd be able to hear them; I'd know they're there, and wouldn't know whether they were all staring at me!' She compromised, taking a seat in the second row, but all the way toward one side of the room. There, her bookbag could stick out a little bit into the side aisle, without being underfoot to anyone next to her. She fished a notebook and a plastic case out of the bag, and popped the latter open to reveal a carefully selected assortment of writing implements, from which she chose a dark blue ballpoint-tip pen. In meticulous print, she wrote across the top line of a page, 'PHYS161: General Physics ~ Mechanics and Particle Dynamics.' Satisfied with her preparation, she leaned back in her seat and stole a glance at the clock. It was eight twenty-three. 'Oh, gods! Only thirty-seven more minutes!'
Willow wondered how Buffy's first class was going. The blonde had signed up for an eight o'clock session, in order to avoid having any Friday classes, despite Willow's warnings that she was anything but a morning person. She imagined Buffy in the very back of her psychology class, her eyelids gradually sweeping down, her head slipping gently from her hands to the desk, lulled to sleep by the professor endlessly droning on. The image brought a smile to her face. Buffy wasn't a bad student, Willow knew; she might not be as prepared, alert, or passionate about learning as Willow was, but she had an uncanny knack for turning out excellent work during the states of last-minute panic she inevitably found herself in. Willow would tease Buffy about her study habits, but she never doubted her ability to succeed.
Oz was a different story entirely. Willow's parents were right about one thing: since she'd met him, Oz hadn't ever displayed that he cared about his schooling. He'd always been a bright boy, and had been able to sail through his early school years on brains alone, without ever needing to study. In high school, when natural talent without effort hadn't been enough, Oz had faltered. He'd failed several classes his senior year-Willow's junior year-and he had been forced to repeat the grade. It got worse, after that; since most of his musician friends had graduated, they were no longer bound to operate on the school's schedule, and Oz had found himself with parties and practice sessions at all hours. When he'd begun to skip classes, Willow had put her foot down, sitting down for a talk with him, stressing the importance of an education, and noting that if he didn't graduate, she'd be going off to college without him. To Oz's credit, he had listened. He redoubled his efforts, put in extra hours studying with Willow, and had even graduated with a respectable GPA.
'Was that when he stopped caring?' she wondered. 'No, wait, that's not true; Oz cares a lot about me, it's just that...he's gotten a little lazy about it, as though he's taking it for granted.' Willow frowned. 'I guess we're well past the shiny new relationship phase, by this point.' The weekend had served to highlight this point. After Oz had bailed on her Saturday evening-his only communication had been a text message saying he'd be crashing at his drummer's house-he'd gone missing for most of Sunday. He finally had made an appearance at Willow's dorm just as the sun was setting, and apologized for his absence both days. Still carrying a grudge from being stood up, the two had shared an awkward silence for a short while, but she decided it wasn't worth bringing up-he was there now, after all. They'd gone to grab some nachos and shakes at the late night dining hall hours, then returned to the dorm for a movie. By the time it had finished, they were snuggled up to each other on the bed, Willow's bitterness over the weekend all but forgotten. 'But I guess not quite,' she amended, while sitting in the empty classroom, 'because I'm remembering it now.' She recognized that Oz's seeming indifference of late wasn't out of the ordinary for the musician; he had always drifted through life with a cool, detached demeanor that had nicely complemented her overly-analytical, spastic one. What worried Willow was that this conduct was more frequently being directed toward her-toward their relationship. In fact, she had fallen for the boy in part because his obvious excitement over Willow was so out of character: she thought that there must be a passionate, jubilant Oz hidden beneath his surface. Willow still believed this-it had percolated through his stolid exterior on a few rare occasions-but she was beginning to question whether she was the right one to bring it out. 'Maybe I'm just not his spark, after all.'
Not wanting to linger on the negative, Willow actively forced her thoughts away from Oz. There were good things going on: she was sitting in a college classroom for the first time; tomorrow, she was going shopping with Buffy; best of all, she was meeting new people. She had been on campus less than a week, and already she had met three people who had the potential to be good friends. She definitely got along with Andrew, Cordelia seemed friendly even though they had contrasting interests, and Tara-well, she didn't know exactly what to make of Tara, so she merely included her in the 'potential to be good friends' category. She recognized that she had liked the waitress instantly, but they hadn't hung out yet, and in fact she hadn't even heard back from her regarding tomorrow's plans. 'Wow, though. Three people already. That's-that's three fifths of a friend, every day. Including weekends! If I keep that rate up, I'll be the most friended person on campus by the end of the year!'
"Hm? Oh, Andrew! Hi." Willow hadn't even noticed the boy approaching her. She looked around the room, and realized that a few students had begun to filter into the classroom. Andrew was standing in the aisle, still shouldering his bookbag.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" he asked, indicating the seat next to her own.
Willow swiveled the desktop up so that she could stand out of the way. "No, not at all. Here." She tucked her bag under her chair while Andrew squeezed past. "So how was your weekend?"
"Fine. I had to go home to grab a few things I'd forgotten, and to do some last-minute school shopping. You?"
Willow shrugged. "It was okay. Oh, I went to the diner on Saturday."
"Uh huh. I was looking for Tara, but there was a new girl there."
Andrew nodded. "Yeah, Mr. Wilkins has been hiring a bunch of people since the semester's starting. Who was she?"
"Hm. I can't remember her name. She had brown hair, kinda wavy and about this long," Willow described, holding her hand about shoulder level. "She was pretty, but looked like she could break me in half if I made her angry. Oh, and she was wearing a shirt that said something I, uh, can't exactly repeat, but that didn't seem very appropriate for a waitress."
"Oh! That's Faith. Isn't she the coolest?" Andrew gushed, his cheeks tinged with pink. "She's not new, though. She's one of the cooks; I'm pretty sure she's been there for a few years, at least. Come on, what'd the shirt say? You've got to tell me," he whined.
"No way. Ask her yourself," Willow laughed, shaking her head adamantly.
"Darn it." The boy pouted, and grudgingly changed the topic. "So what are you taking this course for?"
"Physics fills one of the requirements for both chemistry and computer science. I'm double majoring. What about you-physics major?"
"Math," Andrew replied. "But there's a lot of overlap. I'm taking a comp sci class, too: CMSC131. Are you in that one?"
"Nope." Willow pulled her class schedule out of the front pocket of her folder and slid it onto Andrew's desk. "I ended up in 212 because of the college placement exams." She pointed out the boxes on the page.
The boy looked over her schedule. "Wow, heavy course load," he noted, impressed. "Hey, GEMS100! I'm in that section, too. I didn't know you were in Gemstone."
"Yup! I don't know if it'll be any good; a couple of the returning students on my floor were grumbling about it."
"You've got to be in Ellicott Hall, though, right?"
"Hey, yeah, I didn't even think about that! All the Gemstone students are there, aren't they? So we're in the same dorm! What floor are you on? I'm on seven."
"Five," Andrew laughed. "I guess we're neighbors."
The two new friends stood to let a pair of students past, then settled back into their seats and conversation. "So," Andrew began hesitantly, "you'll probably think I'm a real nerd for asking, but, um...have you ever played role playing games? Like, uh, Dungeons & Dragons? There's a couple guys on my floor who are starting a game."
"Yeah, I used to play with my friend Xander. And, actually, Buffy a few times," Willow giggled, "although she'd never admit it, now, I'll bet! She always played the warrior classes, because she couldn't ever remember the rules for the more complicated ones." The image of Buffy cackling maniacally whenever she rolled particularly well in combat flitted to the front of Willow's mind, and she found herself smiling broadly at the memory. "It was really fun, when we first met. We stopped once we, you know, started dating people. Well, Xander kept bugging us to play, but we'd always come up with excuses, but maybe we shouldn't have. Oz could have been a great bard, now that I think about it-he's my boyfriend, and plays guitar in a band. I was a sorceress."
"You are just about the coolest person ever," Andrew stated, clearly in awe. "You've got to join our game."
"Okay," Willow agreed.
"Hey, guys!" Buffy greeted, approaching a table in the dining hall, where Willow and Andrew were both sitting.
"Hey, Buffy. Andrew was in my physics section this morning, so I invited him to meet us for lunch."
"Cool." Buffy set her tray down on the table, then pulled out a chair and plopped down. "I actually asked Cordy if she wanted to join us, too, but she said she might be a no-show. We had a psych class together, today. At way-too-early o'clock, I might add," she grimaced.
Willow peered at her friend. "You know I hate to say I-"
"You love to say 'I told you so,'" Buffy interjected, "so go ahead. Let's hear it." She waved her hands invitingly in a 'bring it on' gesture.
"Nope, not going to happen," Willow harrumphed, turning up her nose in indignance. She wasn't going to give her the pleasure of being correct. Buffy chuckled at her friend's airs, then dug into her burger and fries.
Andrew chose to ignore the exchange. "How was psych class?" he asked the blonde.
She shrugged noncommittally. "Eh. Seems like it's going to be right out of the book, so kind of boring. I sense lots of reading, memorizing, and regurgitating," she sighed. "How about yours?"
"I had an honors calculus class that ruled," Andrew stated. "The professor seems like he's really into the subject; I've never seen a teacher get so excited about math. It'll probably be great. Physics was okay. I think I like the smaller classes better, though."
"Me, too," Willow agreed through a bite of tuna salad. "The whole lecture hall full of people kind of leads to the teacher just reading things off up front, and everyone taking notes. There's not a lot of chance for discussion."
"Are you still going to work at the diner, now that classes have started?" Buffy asked the boy, reaching for the ketchup.
"Yeah," Andrew answered. "Not nearly as many hours, of course. Mostly evening and weekend shifts."
"Guh. I can't imagine adding a job to be load. And I'm sure you're both probably taking double my credits, already."
"Eighteen," Willow and Andrew replied in unison. Realizing their similar answers, they grinned and offered high-fives to each other.
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Where's Cordelia when I need her?" she muttered, feeling alone next to the two overachievers.
"Speaking of missing people, did Tara ever show up to work?" Willow inquired.
Andrew didn't follow. "Hm? When?"
"She was sick, or missing, or something. On Saturday morning."
"Oh, I'm not sure. I didn't work either day this weekend. They didn't call me to fill in on Sunday, though, so I expect she was there."
"We still haven't heard from her about our shopping trip, tomorrow," Willow explained.
"Do you think she got the message?" Buffy asked.
Willow considered this. "I really don't know." She turned to Andrew. "Is, uh-is Faith likely to remember to pass along an invite?"
"Definitely!" Andrew insisted, jumping to his coworker's defense. "Faith's awesome. I think she'd be really excited about it, actually. Faith I mean. She seems intent upon getting Tara to socialize more. She's really cool like that." Andrew shoveled a forkful of salad into his mouth, missing the glance that Buffy and Willow exchanged, as well as the blonde's subsequent smirk.
"Well, we could always stop by the diner and see," Buffy suggested, "but it would have to be tomorrow; I told Cordy that I'd hang out with her at Delta after classes. Will, I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you wanted to come along."
"Maybe," Willow said. "I might go to Oz's, though. I think he's trying to make up for his vanishing act this weekend by staying on campus all week."
"Okay, well, give my cell a ring if you change your mind."
"Hey, are either of you entering the PanUM Games, next weekend?" Andrew asked while folding the sleeve from his straw into a tiny paper accordion.
"The what?" Buffy looked up from her burger, confused.
Willow perked up. "Oh, yeah! E7 is putting together a team."
Buffy shifted her attention to her friend, even more lost. "Huh?"
"It's like Field Day," Willow explained. "You enter a team and compete in all of these events, like a wheelbarrow race, or a balloon toss, you know?"
"Each floor from each dormitory can enter a team," Andrew clarified. "And the ones that do the best get Terp Dollars, which they can use to buy things for their whole floor, like a vending machine, or a Ping-Pong table, or something like that. There are a few events throughout the semester at which you can earn them."
"This thing is this weekend?"
"Next weekend," Andrew corrected.
Buffy frowned. "Huh. No, I haven't heard about it. I think my dorm's kind of boring and disinterested in all things fun."
"You could be an official Ellicott Seven ringer, if you wanted," Willow offered. "We need more people, and you wouldn't be the first; one of Cordelia's friends is already on the team, and she doesn't even live on campus."
"Hey, that's against the rules!" Andrew complained.
"Maybe," Willow admitted. "But you'd never tell on us."
"Oh, yeah? Why's that?" the boy challenged.
The redhead grinned wickedly. "Because...if you don't mention that Buffy's not from E7, we'll be sure not to mention to Faith that you've got a big ol' crush on her."
Willow's words were followed by a heartbeat of shocked silence, before Andrew sputtered, "W-what? I don't have a crush on Faith!"
"I'm sure she'll be quite happy to know that," Buffy grinned, catching on to her friend's ploy.
Andrew shifted tactics. "You wouldn't actually tell her," he gulped.
Willow looked at Buffy. "We're stopping by the diner tomorrow, right, Buff? I wonder if Faith will be there, too."
The boy opened and closed his mouth several times without a word, carp-like, before hanging his head in defeat. "Fine," he grumbled, "I won't tell. But-but just know that if you win, it will only be through trickery and deceit!"
Buffy grinned at her friend. "We can live with that," they both said.
After lunch, the girls headed off to their next class in Marie Mount Hall. Willow toted a bag nearly bursting with her day's texts, notebooks, and school supplies, while Buffy carried only a pad of paper and a pen. They walked side by side along one of the footpaths that ran diagonally across the Mall. On the grass, a number of students had sprawled out, eager to make the most of summer's last breath, before autumn began in earnest. It looked so relaxing that even Willow wished for a moment that she didn't have a class to attend.
"So," she commented, "you're really getting along well with Cordelia."
"Yeah, actually. We do kind of click. I hope you didn't feel left out on Saturday," Buffy said, worried that her best friend might be feeling like a third wheel due to the amount of time Buffy was spending with her roommate. "We really wanted you to hang with us. Cordy keeps saying she needs a chance to get to meet you for more than five minutes at a time."
"No, it's okay, really," Willow assured her friend. "It was an all around bad day, not a 'gee my friend isn't around' day. It's neat that you're making campus-y friends, really. And we'll all hang, definitely. Besides, that was a whole two days ago. Ancient history!" She waved her hand, dismissing the notion that she might still be upset.
"Speaking of ancient history, are you ready for Boredom 101 with Mr. Jeeves?"
Willow laughed. "It's Giles. And I'm not certain it will be boring. Ancient civilizations were fascinating, Buffy. You'll see." The girls took the steps up to the building and tried to get their bearings once inside.
"Hm. I guess," Buffy offered, not sounding at all convinced. "All I know is that I've been promised Internet hotness in the professor department, and I expect to be wowed."
"Well, you know, they say hotness scales differently on the Internet," Willow joked. She located the directory. "Here we are."
Buffy was reading a series of fliers that were stuck to a large bulletin board in the hallway. "Linguistics...Family Studies...University Senate? Guh, politics." She moved over to Willow, and scanned the list. "Hey, there's a computer lab on this floor. Huh. LGBT Studies on the second floor? They have classes for that?" she asked in disbelief.
"They have classes for everything," Willow declared. "There was a course in the catalog called 'Family and Social Roles in Daytime Serials.' Oh, and 'European Witchcraft.' College is so great!"
Buffy simply shook her head. "Come on, we're in 1400, so it's somewhere on this floor."
They wandered down a few corridors. Luckily, signs were posted at all the intersections, and they didn't have any trouble finding their classroom. "I got lost in the psych building, this morning," Buffy confessed as they walked. "Somebody told me that it was built purposefully to be confusing, sort of as an homage to the rat in the maze thing, I guess. This isn't nearly as bad."
"Nope! 1400, here it is." They poked their heads through the doorway and saw an empty classroom save for one other student and the professor, a man in his mid-forties who was wearing a sharp twill weave suit and tie. He held a pair of glasses in one hand, and was busy rummaging through the contents of a leather briefcase.
"Oh, bloody hell," he cursed quietly, but the acoustics of the room carried the oath to the girls' ears. He closed the case with a sigh and hurried to the door, acknowledging them with a tight-lipped smile as he rushed past, then doubled back. "Pardon me, but you're here for Mythology of Ancient World Civilizations, I presume?"
"Yup!" Buffy replied.
"Very good," he nodded curtly. "I must go fetch something from my office. If I have not returned by the start of class, would you be so kind as to inform them that I'll be along shortly?"
"Thank you." With that, the professor took off running down the hallway toward the main entrance, and both girls held back fits of giggles at the image of the man in a neatly pressed suit awkwardly dashing away. The moment he turned the corner and disappeared from their sight, Buffy spun on Willow.
"You promised hot teacher! He's not hot, he's-old!"
Willow shrugged lamely. "I guess you can't trust everything you read online," she agreed, not willing to admit to her friend that she thought Professor Giles was sort of cute.
The dorm room door swung open then nearly closed again, colliding into an unseen body with an audible "oomph!" A single pale hand, clutching a slender bottle of soda, nudged it back open, and was followed by the rest of Willow. She carried dining hall takeout balanced on one arm, had her school supplies in the other, several napkins tucked under her chin, and her keys dangling precariously from her mouth. Teetering across the room, she dumped all but the food onto her bed. Free of her burden at last, Willow flipped on her desk lamp and pressed the play button on the answering machine, whose message indicator was blinking the number three. She grabbed one of the napkins and began wiping some marinara sauce off the edge of the Styrofoam container while she listened to the recording. The first two were blank; she heard only the sound of the phone hanging up.
"Hi, is this-is this Willow's answering machine?"
Willow's hand stilled at the sound of the voice. She crept closer to the machine as the message continued.
"I, uh, I hope so. Um, if you're not Willow, s-sorry for the call. If you are Willow, hi, this is Tara from the diner. Remember me?"
"Of course I remember you," Willow said to the empty room.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to call you. I, um, I kind of didn't now how to get in touch with you? I think you forgot to leave your phone number...uh, or your address...or, well, r-really anything other than your name with Faith. But, um, well I got the number there. You p-probably shouldn't ask how. Anyway, yes, I'd love to go to the Magic Box with you tomorrow after my shift."
Willow let out a breath she didn't even realize she'd been holding.
"I'm done at four o'clock. If-if you want to reach me before then, my n-number is three-"
The redhead dove for her desk, tearing through the contents of her drawers to find a pen, then hastily wrote down the digits as they were read off.
"-ive seven four. If I d-don't hear from you, then I'll see you tomorrow! Um, oh, but where? And when? I guess-" The rest of the message was cut off, and Willow gaped in disbelief. She glowered at the offending piece of machinery that prevented her from hearing the remainder of Tara's thoughts. Willow played the message once more-'I'd better make sure I got the number right,' she justified, although she was certain she'd written it down correctly-and immediately programmed the information into her cell phone. She then leveled her gaze at the buttons with a look of sheer determination. "Willow Rosenberg," she demanded, "you will dial this number on the first try."
Tara was startled when the phone rang, interrupting her meal with Donny. The two were eating dinner alone for the third night in a row. Their father had made some excuse about having to work late, but Tara knew the pattern: he would stay out late-at the bar, she supposed-for about a week after he-'after coming home too drunk,' her mind filled in. He wouldn't speak with his children but for a few words sprinkled here and there, and then, after his week of self-imposed isolation, he'd slowly begin to integrate himself into the family, again. He'd pick up his effort at work, and would even ease back on the alcohol for a few weeks. For several days, he'd even help out in the kitchen, with the errands, and clean up around the house. Then the cycle would repeat.
"You want me to get that?" Donny asked, raising an eyebrow to his sister, who was within arm's reach of the phone, now on its third ring. His sister looked suitably embarrassed and grabbed the receiver.
"Hi, I'm looking for Tara Maclay," piped a voice, just a bit too loudly.
"This is Tara." She saw Donny look up from his plate, curious about the conversation now that he knew the call was for his sister.
"Hey, Tara! This is Willow. You know, from the diner? Um, I mean, of course from the diner; you probably don't know any Willows from anywhere else, huh? And you left a message here today, so it's probably a safe bet that you know who I am-"
Tara giggled. "Hi, Willow," she greeted. Donny's interest was more than piqued, since he didn't recognize the name. 'Who's Willow?' he mouthed, but his sister shook her head to shush him, and carried the phone around the corner, stretching the cord. Donny craned his neck to hear better.
"So I got your message. Well, the first part of it anyway; the machine kind of ate the second part. The nerve! Computer hard drives can store over a terabyte of data; you'd think your run of the mill answering machine would be able to hold a five minute long message, you know? But, right, I got the message, and by the way I'm so sorry I forgot to leave my phone number. I don't know what I was thinking. I probably deserve the Idiot of the Year award or something, like, 'Hey! Give me a call!' but you can't. I'm dying to know how you got my phone number, even though you said I shouldn't ask, so let the record show that this isn't me asking, more...just stating my curiosity in a general way. Anyway, I hope you didn't think I was being mean, inviting you and then not giving you any way to reach me. I wasn't; I'm just kind of a doofus when it comes to remember some things. Important, heart of the message type things-"
She heard a deep inhalation, as the girl on the other end of the phone refilled her deflated lungs. "Yeah?" Willow's voice asked, meekly.
"Breathe, okay?" Tara instructed, smiling at the girl's ability to spout out words apparently without running out of oxygen.
"Right, sorry. So you want to come with me tomorrow? And Buffy? To the New Age shop? Is it called the Magic Box? That was up in the air, the last time we talked."
"I-I think so, yes. Faith said she was certain that was the name. I mean, I think that's the name; I definitely would like to go with you. When are you going, and w-where would I meet you?"
"First of all: woo! And secondly: we were planning on stopping by the diner around four, and waiting for you to get off of your shift, then walking to the bus stop just up the road and taking the bus up to East/West Highway. Would that be okay? Neither of us has a car," Willow admitted.
"Me, neither," Tara confessed. "That sounds perfect. Thanks so much for inviting me; it'll be so nice to have s-something to do."
"Of course! I mean, you said you really loved those kinds of stores, and it was your suggestion in the first place, so it only seemed fair. And anyway, you seem nice, and Andrew said you just moved here, and we kind of just moved here too, so, you know, we're just a bunch of people who don't know anybody, right? And, well, now we will know each other! I mean, I'm assuming you don't know anybody, already, which could be completely wrong, and I guess kind of insulting if in fact you do have lots of friends already, as though I think you wouldn't, which isn't true at all."
"I don't know many people," Tara jumped in when the other girl paused for a quick breath. "It was v-very sweet of you to invite me. Thanks again. I've g-got to go, though; I'm eating dinner with my brother."
"Oh! I'm sorry, I'll let you go, then. Hey, see? I didn't even know you had a brother. It's like I know you a little more now than I did five seconds ago. But, going now, so you can eat. Have a nice meal. And good night! I'll see you tomorrow, four o'clock."
"Good night, Willow," Tara said, and the line disconnected. "Willow," she whispered again, very conscious of how the word felt flowing past her lips. 'It's such a beautiful name,' she thought. 'So soft, all rolling tongue and rounded edges, like it was meant to be breathed, instead of spoken.'
When she reentered the kitchen to hang up the receiver and return to her meal, Donny had a smug expression plastered across his face.
"What?" Tara asked, dismayed.
"Tara's got a da-ate! Tara's got a da-ate!" he half-sung, doing a little dance in his seat.
"W-what?" her eyes widened. "I don't have a date. I have a-an outing, with a friend. With friends, actually. Two friends of the girl variety."
"Oh," Donny frowned, halting his impromptu dance. "You sure?" he narrowed his eyes at his sister, making sure she wasn't holding back any information.
"Well, that's still good," he decided, giving her two thumbs up. "Good job, there."