Jenny Calendar falls in love on a Sunday.
It’s straight out of a rom-com, because she and Rupert were out getting supplies to make a cake for the staff party and he tripped on the sidewalk and everything broke. There were a bunch of eggs in there (Rupert had promised he’d teach her how to bake a proper cake, and he said it in that adorable British way) and they end up smashed to bits in between the milk carton and the sugar and everything’s a soggy mess on the ground.
Jenny’s expecting Rupert to dissolve into an apologetic mess, and she’s already preparing herself to comfort him when he looks at her, looks at the groceries, and steps straight on the bag.
“There,” he says. “If I’m going to make a mess, I’m going to damn well do it properly.”
And shit but the wind gets knocked out of her when he looks up at her, because he’s got this proud, self-satisfied smile like he knows he’s just said something really funny (even though it really wasn’t that funny) and it’s the sweetest thing she’s seen (even though they’re out thirty-seven dollars and they’re going to have to buy more eggs) so Jenny stands on tiptoe and she kisses him on the sidewalk, feeling a wonderful rush as she winds her arms around his neck.
Like she said. Straight out of a rom-com. The worst kind of mushy romance you could find.
Tara Maclay falls in love next to a dumpster.
“Oh no,” Willow’s saying, her voice a pained whine. “Oh no oh no oh no we’re going to be in so much trouble what time is it? Is it midnight? Because I bet someone’s going to start looking for us at midnight because Buffy gets worried if I don’t get back to my dorm on time and no one knows I’m out here and Giles will be so upset if he finds out I stayed out late looking for Miss Kitty when it’s my fault that—”
Tara isn’t all that good with words, usually. But she knows what touch can do. So she slips her hand into Willow’s, soft and quiet, lacing their fingers together. A reminder.
Willow breathes out, almost a sob, and presses her cheek into Tara’s shoulder. “She’s such a tiny little kitty,” she mumbles, sounding thoroughly exhausted, “and I didn’t mean to leave the window open, and I thought—maybe she’d go to the trash, because cats like trash—is that dogs? Tara, I’m so tired.”
Tara still doesn’t really know what to say. Willow’s the composed one, the brave one, the one Tara’s always been so in awe of. But then she sees Miss Kitty, sitting on a nearby windowsill and washing a tiny white paw. “Willow,” she says with soft relief. “Willow, I-I found her.”
Willow’s head snaps up. “Oh—oh, Tara, thank you!”
Tara’s eyes are on Miss Kitty, so she doesn’t see Willow move forward and kiss her on the cheek. But she feels it, long after Willow pulls away, and she finds herself thinking oh no.
“No it’s a mess it’s a mess it’s a mess—” Tara’s sobbing very hard over the phone, and Jenny casts a worried eye toward Rupert to make sure he’s still asleep. “A-and I’m sorry I’m so sorry I just I didn’t know who to call and Willow she always says you listen and I’m s-o sorry—”
Jenny feels very out of her element. But the trick Rupert taught her back during the kids’ senior year (when she was so convinced that she wasn’t enough of a mentor for Willow) is that sometimes it’s best to be honest about not knowing what to do. “What do you need?” she asks, trying to sound gentle and maternal. She hopes she pulls it off; Tara deserves nothing less.
“She’s just—” Tara hiccups. “I don’t—I—Ms. Calendar—how d-do you stop loving someone? Like—if you know it’s never going to work out—”
Oh, thinks Jenny. She winds the phone cord around her hand, knowing that what she says isn’t really going to be what Tara wants to hear. “I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t think I was ever able to.”
Willow kisses Tara for the first time (on the mouth, not just a cheek kiss; those happen in frustrating abundance) outside a small café near campus, this tiny little place that barely anyone from UC Sunnydale goes to because everyone’s always at the Espresso Pump. Willow held Tara’s hand all through the dinner, and even though it’s never once happened before, it felt to Tara like an inevitability that they would kiss at the end of the meal, enough so that she’s not surprised when they do.
It’s not electric, like it is when they’re doing spells together. It doesn’t feel like there’s the same kind of magical energy, not to Tara, but that’s what makes it so wonderful. Everything about Willow is magical and sparkly from a distance, but holding her this close, all she is is Willow. You can find magic anywhere if you look hard enough, but Tara doesn’t think she’ll ever find another Willow. Not anywhere.
Willow’s eyes are half-closed when Tara breaks the kiss. She doesn’t say anything, just traces Tara’s cheek with a fingertip. Tara’s afraid that she’ll breathe wrong and break the spell.
“What is this?” she says, even though she doesn’t want to.
“I don’t know,” says Willow, which is strangely comforting to Tara. I don’t know means there’s something of a chance.
Jenny enters the room, hesitating by the door, not sure if Tara wants to be left alone. Tara’s sitting on the couch, holding a cup of tea that’s almost certainly gone cold by now, staring down at it without really looking at it at all. “Sorry I called you a few nights ago,” she says, and she sounds too tired for a girl that young. “That was probably—out of line. Or something.”
Jenny is reminded of the way it felt to kiss Rupert on a sunny sidewalk, the dizzy elation that comes with knowing you can hold the person you love. A well-guarded secret with no danger to it. “No,” she says. “It’s okay. Are you going to tell her?”
“That’s okay too.” Jenny crosses the room and sits down next to Tara, staring straight ahead.
There’s a photo hanging on the wall opposite them, one of Jenny’s favorites. It’s one of the candid shots from the yearbook; Willow and Jenny are standing at the front of Jenny’s classroom, teaching a lesson together. The picture’s snapped in the middle of one of Willow’s contagious laughs, and Jenny’s got a proud smile on her face.
“I think she’s the closest I have to a daughter,” says Jenny. “Weird how things happen. You show up in Sunnydale thinking you’re here for one reason, and you end up staying for another.” Her eyes drift to a photo of Rupert, soft-eyed and smiling. “Two others.”
“What are you saying?” Tara asks softly.
“I’m saying—” Jenny isn’t sure if she’s ready to look at Tara. There’s so much pain and hurt in that girl, so much she wants to fix and can’t. “Willow thinks she knows her reasons,” she says, “and you think she does too. I don’t think she’s really found herself out yet, even if you do.”
“You’re being kinda cryptic.” Tara sniffles, then laughs a little. “I guess I get why Willow says you’re a good listener. It’s, um, it’s hard to tell what you think about things.”
Jenny hesitates. “I think this is something you should figure out on your own,” she says finally. “I don’t want my perspective to color the decisions you make.”
“That makes sense.” Tara settles back into the couch, taking a sip of tea. “It tastes nice cold,” she says thoughtfully.
“Don’t tell Rupert that,” says Jenny, smirking, “he’s still not okay with the whole concept of iced tea.”
Willow kisses Tara and kisses her and kisses her in her dorm room, fairy lights illuminating them both and adding a golden glow to Willow’s hair. Willow’s sweater is thrown to the floor and Tara stops kissing her for a second so that she can gently place Willow’s sweater on a nearby chair.
“What—” Willow kisses Tara, smiling against her mouth, and pulls away to continue, “—do you need my sweater on a chair for?”
“I don’t want it getting wrinkled,” says Tara with serious concern, and that’s when Willow knows.
And she almost stops kissing Tara, then, almost turns and runs out of the dorm, leaving her sweater behind. Because Tara’s so beautiful and so kind and Willow’s just this big mess who’s never thought to think beyond kissing Tara, holding Tara, being with Tara, never thought to think hey, maybe I’m in love with this girl.
Willow’s cried to Tara about Oz, too, before they started kissing and holding hands all the time (that sounds so obviously romantic, now, but Willow kept on trying to label it as confusion and experimenting because that seems like the kind of thing her mom would call it), so, so has Tara just thought all along that experimenting is all they’ve been doing? What does Tara think? Why hasn’t Willow once tried to think about what Tara thinks?
Suddenly, Willow’s hesitant.
“It’s okay,” says Tara softly. Tara always seems to know when Willow’s upset, even though in this case it doesn’t really seem like she knows why. “You’re—you’re with me, and—it’s okay.”
Willow unbuttons Tara’s shirt, a familiar action. She wonders how and why she hadn’t known she was falling in love with this girl, wonders if she’s brave enough to love someone when it feels as big and scary as this.
Willow slips out of Tara’s room, after. Pulls on the sweater, notices too late that it’s backwards, leaves anyway. She knows where she has to go.
The part that Jenny always leaves out of her beautifully romantic story is that after she finished kissing Rupert, when she pulled away from him and his hair was a mess and his eyes were so soft and adoring, she realized she was in love and she ran. She ran back to her car and drove back to her house and locked herself in her room and hugged her leather jacket to her chest and tried to make herself stop loving him, because there was no way anything between them would end in anything but disaster. She hadn’t come to this town for love. She wasn’t supposed to find it here, or now, or this much of it.
And then Rupert showed up at her door with the completely destroyed bag of groceries and thirty-seven dollars and said he wouldn’t destroy any more of her eggs and sugar if it upset her that much, and Jenny was still so afraid, but something about the way he was looking at her made her feel like they’d figure things out together.
Willow, small and forlorn in her backwards sweater, says, “I don’t know how to be in love. How does anyone just—just love someone without being scared?”
Jenny thinks about Rupert, cracking their only unbroken egg against a bowl. “Maybe you’re always a little bit scared,” she says. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
At first, Tara’s afraid when she wakes up and Willow’s not there, because Willow always stays. But then she remembers that Willow always studies in the library every Saturday, and so Tara brings her a coffee at noon. They sit together and hold hands while Willow writes and makes flash cards and Tara listens to music on an IPod Jenny gave her a few weeks back. It’s full of techno-music sung by girls with loud voices, which isn’t really Tara’s kind of music, but she doesn’t mind. She likes thinking about Jenny sitting and listening to this. She likes knowing that this is a small part of someone who cares about her.
Today, Willow spills her coffee. It gets all over the flash cards and her skirt and even a nearby book Willow had borrowed from the very library they’re sitting in. And Tara’s expecting Willow to make her sad-puppy noise, but Willow looks at the coffee with a funny expression and says, “Tara, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”
“Okay,” says Tara, not sure where Willow’s going with this. They’re still holding hands. Tara wonders if Willow will pull away to clean up the coffee.
Willow doesn’t. She says, “I—I don’t know how I’m supposed to say this. I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Tara feels a spike of panic. “Is this—do you not want to see me anymore?”
“No,” says Willow in a high, panicky voice, “no, oh my god I’m really messing this up, okay, here goes,” and kisses her. Full on the mouth, in the library, and this is very different from a café that no one goes to or a walk at night or in Tara’s dorm room where no one will see. Tara’s pretty sure that the guy studying at the table near them is in her chemistry class, and there’s a group of people from Willow’s dorm studying two tables away.
Tara kisses her back. She wants to say that she feels giddy, that she recognizes this as some kind of big step, but kissing Willow is always a world within itself. She breaks the kiss and says “What is this?” only now she thinks that, if she’s really lucky, she might know the answer.
“See, that’s the thing,” says Willow. There’s a brightness in her eyes, and her smile wobbles in that way that says I’m-so-happy-I-might-cry. “This is me in love.”
“You owe me twenty dollars,” says Jenny to Giles when Tara and Willow tell them both. “Pay up.” Then she makes them sit through this mostly-pointless story about the first computer she got while Giles makes everyone tea. Tara isn’t listening to most of the story; there's something much more wonderful about watching Willow’s reactions and the way Jenny moves her hands.
Jenny catches Willow at the door. “Take good care of her,” she says, loud enough for Tara to hear. “This one’s a keeper.”