Return to Coming Back Chapter Eleven

Coming Back

Author: GayNow
Rating: PG
Disclaimer: BtVS characters, concepts and dialog belong to Mutant Enemy, Fox, The WB, UPN and others. The story, however, came out of my delusional little brain.

Buffy waited impatiently for the passing traffic to subside so she could cross the street. Come on. Come on. "Don't you people have homes?" she muttered under her breath. She'd caught sight of Willow walking as she drove down Main Street and, for a moment, Buffy considered honking to get Willow's attention. She decided against it when she spotted a parking space on the other side of the four-lane road. Okay, Buffy, you can do this. A simple u-turn and then park. You've practiced this - parallel parking is nothing. Just concentrate. After five minutes and two very gentle taps on the adjacent car bumpers, Buffy was simultaneously turning off the engine, opening the door and shouting Willow's name.

As Buffy watched the cars go by, she tried to locate Willow across the street. I heard her call out my name, so she knows I'm here. She stood on her tiptoes trying to see over the various vehicles as they passed. I shouldn't have worn my flat-heeled sandals. Why couldn't I be just two inches taller? Is that asking too much?

The traffic thinned out enough at one point for Buffy to see Willow standing across the street, about 30 feet to her right. Willow's gonna flip when I tell her what Mr. Gom- Tony said! Buffy couldn't suppress the ear-to-ear grin and bounced with excitement as she continued to watch the traffic. I know Will, she'll be proud of me and start clucking like a mother hen. She knows I need that...I guess that's why she's my best friend. Finding her opportunity to make her way to Willow's side of the street, Buffy carefully, but quickly, slipped off the curb and moved toward Willow's location. She paused at the median to wait for a few cars heading in the opposite direction and glance again toward her friend. Huh. I wonder who Willow is talking to...

Buffy's eyes went wide as she realized what she'd done. "Aaww, shit!" she exclaimed out loud as her palm made contact with her forehead. She winced in pain. "Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. How could I forget?" Buffy chastised herself as she finished crossing the street. She contemplated ducking into the nearest shop, hoping to avoid having to own up to her own idiocy, but at just that moment, Willow made eye contact with her - Huh...never saw that look in her eyes before - and took a few steps in Buffy's direction. Way to go, Summers! Okay, okay, say hello, meet Tara and bail. You can talk to Will later.

Willow watched as Buffy waited to cross the street, catching glimpses of her best friend - who I'm going to beat senseless - through gaps between the passing cars. She brought her attention back to Tara, who still had her head on Willow's shoulder. Wow. Okay. We almost kissed. Damn you, Buffy! Willow gently squeezed the hand still firmly clasped in her own.

"Tare? I-I'm sorry, Baby," Willow whispered in Tara's ear as she stroked her soft, blonde hair. "I'm sorry...I didn't...I mean, I did...but-"

"Willow." Tara interrupted Willow's building babble and lifted her head to gaze into green eyes. She pulled Willow closer, enveloping her in a comforting embrace. "Don't be sorry for something we both want, Willow." She felt Willow tremble in her arms.

The feeling of Tara's breath on her ear caused the shiver that ran through Willow's body as much as the words Tara said. Something we both want. Oh God, I want...I so want. Willow wrapped both arms around Tara and tightened the hug for a moment, trying to convey her thoughts through the simple physical contact. "I'll get rid of Buffy. I don't know what she's doing here...she should be at work."

"No, Will, it's okay," Tara said, pulling back to look into Willow's eyes. "We have plenty of time. I'm not going anywhere."

"Promise?" Willow's voice was no louder than a whisper, gently pleading.

Tara gazed deeply into the green eyes of her love; she saw Willow's need for reassurance. How did I make it through the last year without her? Her lips curled into a lop-sided smile; her eyes darted from Willow's eyes to her lips. There was only one answer to Willow's question. She leaned forward and brought her lips to Willow's in a soft kiss. Tara pulled back slightly, releasing the pressure but not the touch of Willow's lips on her own. "Mmm...I definitely promise." She quickly ran her tongue along Willow's lower lip before leaning back and loosening her embrace. Reaching down to take Willow's hand in her own once again, Tara stepped back and gave a gentle tug on the redhead's arm. "Come on. Let's see Buffy. Maybe she'll have something to eat with us and I can finally meet the person who took care of you for me."

Mmphgrfp! Am I still standing? Why am I standing? Willow, still in a Tara-kiss induced haze, turned in Buffy's direction, briefly making eye contact with her, and took a few shaky steps. Then she stopped and squeezed Tara's hand, getting the blonde's attention. Blue eyes turned to meet her gaze and Willow broke into a smile.


One word, whispered in awe, was all she could say. The answering smile from Tara - my Tara - told her it was all she needed to say.

"C'mon, Will." Tara nodded her head in Buffy's direction. "Let's say hello."

"Okay," Willow answered as she began walking. "And then I'm gonna kill the little shit," she growled quietly, earning a rich, full laugh from the woman beside her. Oh I love that sound.

As Buffy approached Willow and Tara, she made note of the joined hands swinging gently between them. Way to go, Will! She also noted the almost feral gleam in Willow's eyes as the redhead glared at her. Uh oh. Get yourself out of this one, Summers! You don't want Willow angry, even if you deserve it. God, I'm such a schmuck!

"Hey, Will!" Buffy called out as nonchalantly as possible. "Whatcha doin'?"

Tara chuckled softly when she heard Willow emit a low growl. She squeezed the hand in hers and spoke quietly. "Easy, tiger. Be nice."

With a sly, sideways glance into crystal blue eyes, Willow whispered, "For you." She then turned her attention back to Buffy and found a smile for her friend. "Hey, Buff...what's up?"

" know, the usual. I was...uh...on my way to the...uh...mall! Yeah, goin' to the mall. And I saw you walkin' hair stands out and all." Buffy shrugged. "Just thought I'd say hello."

Oh, she knows she's in trouble, Tara mused, noticing as Buffy fidgeted with her hands and avoided eye contact with Willow. Poor Buffy. I should help her.

"Willow always said you were addicted to the mall." She smiled at the nervous blonde and gave her a conspiratorial wink. "Hey, Buffy. It's great to finally meet you."

A clearly startled Buffy quickly looked up and was captured instantly by the friendly blue eyes. Well, that explains a lot. Buffy mused as she noticed the quick wink. Lucky Willow. She released a calming breath and gave Tara a grateful smile. At least she doesn't seem mad at me.

"Hello, Tara. I'm so glad you're here," Buffy said as she held out her hand in greeting.

Tara looked at the proffered hand and then gave Willow a sideways glance, her eyes twinkling mischievously. Oh, you're not completely off the hook, Buffy. "Will, you remembered to mention the mall addiction, but not the cluelessness? Tsk tsk." She watched as Willow bit her lip and tried to hide a grin. Tara returned her attention to Buffy and couldn't help chuckling at the confused look on Buffy's face - the petite blonde's hazel eyes moved back and forth between Tara's face and her own hand. Shaking her head in amusement, Tara released her grip on Willow's hand and took a step toward Buffy. Oh wow, cold hand Don't know if I like that. She regarded Buffy with a raised eyebrow. "Buffy, give me a hug so we can go get something to eat."

Buffy released a short burst of laughter and gave Tara a quick, friendly hug. As she stepped back, she smiled at Willow. "She's a feisty one, Will. Watch out." Buffy noticed the blush creeping up Tara's neck and chuckled. Aaawww. How cute!

Willow also noticed the color making its way over Tara's features and grinned widely. She reclaimed Tara's hand and interlaced their fingers, gently rubbing her thumb across Tara's skin. "Yep! That's my Tara."

As she looked at her best friend, Buffy saw the unmistakable glow that surrounded Willow. Wow. So there it is...that's what's been missing. Without warning, Buffy grabbed Willow and pulled her into a firm hug. "I'm so happy for you, Will," she whispered in the redhead's ear. "Don't let her go."

Willow closed her eyes and smiled as she wrapped her free arm around Buffy and returned the embrace. "Don't worry, I have no intention of ever letting go," came the hushed reply. She and Buffy each took a step back, the earlier tension having evaporated, leaving only feelings of warmth and friendship. "Tara and I were just heading over to Deb's for sandwiches and salad. Come with us."

"Oh. No no no...I've poked my nose into your day enough already," Buffy began. "Actually...confession time...I completely forgot about what today is and I was looking for you, Will. I'm really sorry. I should have remembered." Buffy shuffled her feet in contrition and looked at the ground, seeming to find something interesting in the crack in the sidewalk. She missed the amused looks from her friends. " two go ahead and I'll talk to you when you get back to the house, Will."

"Aaawww, c'mon, Buffy. You know you can't resist one of Deb's Demon Subs. It'll be fun!" Willow rocked onto the balls of her feet and bounced a little, hoping to convince Buffy that all was well.

"No, Will. I don't want to butt in on your Tara-day." Out of the corner of her eye, Buffy once again noticed the blush crawling up Tara's neck and making its way to her cheeks. She couldn't hold back a grin. That is far too easy.

Tara took a deep breath to ground herself - Tara-day...Is that what she calls it? - and looked pointedly at Buffy. "Buffy, I insist. You said you were looking for Willow, so there must be something important going on." She chucked Buffy playfully on the arm. "Besides, you're my friend too and I'd like it if you'd join us." She nodded in affirmation at the inquiring look in Buffy's eyes.

"Yeah, Buffy. There will be scads of time for Tara and I to catch up." Willow squeezed Tara's hand and waited for the blonde to turn towards her. Once she had Tara's full attention, she continued. "Tara's not going anywhere." The tip of Willow's tongue poked out between her teeth as she smiled.

"Exactly!" Tara returned Willow's smile and then directed her gaze at Buffy. "So let's go...I'm hungry!"

Knowing there was no way she could get out of being with her friends - not like I want to get out of it - Buffy laughed and swept her arm out in an exaggerated gesture of compliance. "Okay, okay...lead on, MacWillow."

"Oh, I'm a Happy Meal now?" Willow questioned with mock indignation. She looked at Tara and the two instantly burst into giggles when they noticed Buffy rolling her eyes.

"Will...Shakespeare!" Buffy paused for a moment and considered her words. "Ha! Oh that's funny," she chuckled. "Get it? Will...Shakespeare? William Shakespeare?" She cleared her throat and playfully scowled at the amused looks she was receiving from Willow and Tara. "Anyway, it's from 'Macbeth', Miss 'I have an IQ that can't be measured.'"

"Hey! One, I took composition classes, okay? I didn't have room for the lit classes. Two, I knew what you were talking about, smarty-pants. Three, my IQ can and has been measured, thank you very much. Four, you just like spouting the words of dead writers way too much. And there's not a five. But I think I've made my point." Willow punctuated her proclamation by crossing her arms over her chest and giving a sharp nod of her head.

Buffy and Tara looked at each other and broke into laughter. Laughter turned into hysterics when they saw Willow's bottom lip stick out in the form of a well-practiced pout. Eventually, they calmed down enough so that just a few giggles escaped now and then.

Willow rolled her eyes at her two friends and threw her hands in the air in mock exasperation. "Oh great! Buffy has an accomplice now. I'll never get a break." The smile on her face made the teasing nature of her statement clear. She then started walking toward the deli. "C'mon you two...let's get going."

Tara was the first to catch up and fell in step on Willow's left side. She slid her arm around the redhead's waist and pulled her close. "Oh, sweetie, teasing is a form of endearment.'re just so...endearing." Tara smiled and gave Willow a squeeze.

"Yeah, Will," Buffy agreed, sidling up to Willow's right side and draping her arm over her friend's shoulder. "Besides, you know you love us far too much for it to bother you." She leaned forward slightly and waggled her eyebrows at Tara.

Willow watched the sidewalk move under her feet as they walked. A moment later, she turned to Buffy and smiled. "Yeah, you're right." Placing her arm around Tara's waist, Willow looked into clear blue eyes. "I do."

Deb's Deli was considered a Sunnydale hotspot - good food, exceptional service, and a friendly atmosphere. Business was rarely slow. This particular afternoon was no exception. Fortunately, Willow spotted a table at the back corner of the patio area.

"Oh! Back there. See it? C'mon." Willow sped up and moved through the crowded patio toward the available table. Tara moved to follow, but she was stopped by Buffy's hand on her arm.

"Hold up, Tara," Buffy said in a conspiratorial tone and directed Tara to a spot out of the way of the crowd. "Just watch," she continued and nodded her head in her best friend's direction.

Tara's brow creased in confusion, but she followed Buffy's directive and watched as Willow glided through the hoi polloi. She couldn't stop the grin from forming as she watched.

Willow quickly wove her way through the tables, adeptly avoiding servers as they maneuvered their trays of food through the crowd. "Whoa!" she exclaimed as she moved out of the way of one such person. "Hey, Kelly. Busy today."

"Hi, Willow! Yeah, it's always busy, but I'm not complaining," Kelly called out as she moved up to a table of waiting customers. "Enjoy your meal!"

"Thanks!" Willow continued toward her goal, smoothly hopping over one customer's extended leg, then immediately dodging an airborne pickle - compliments of the two-year-old at the neighboring table. Don't blame you, kid. I don't like pickles either. She winked at the toddler in question and received a gleeful squeal in return. After four more quick steps, Willow reached the table and promptly staked her claim.

Tara looked on, amazed at Willow's grace and agility. Poetry. Pure poetry. She noticed the care Willow took in preparing their seating - grabbing the extra chair and moving it to an out of the way corner; adjusting the remaining chairs to that two of them were placed closer to each other, but so that the sightlines from each seat were acceptable; taking napkins from the holder and whipping the surface of the table quickly but thoroughly. It was the attention to detail that captured Tara's interest.

"Oh, now that's new," Buffy interjected, breaking into Tara's thoughts, as they watched Willow grasp more napkins and carefully wipe off the seat nearest the one she stood behind. Well, that one is obviously Tara's seat. Buffy chuckled inwardly at her friend's behavior. The distinct lack of movement and sound from the woman next to her caught Buffy's attention and she saw the look of awe on Tara's face. "That's for you, ya know."

"Huh?" Tara shook her head briefly, hoping to focus on what Buffy was saying. "I'm sorry. What was that?"

"All of that flustering about the table," Buffy laughed, "that's certainly not for my benefit. I've never rated that kind of prep time from Willow. So, it's all about you."

Tara turned once again toward Willow and saw the excited redhead arranging the items on the table in different configurations. She appeared to contemplate the most aesthetic, yet least intrusive, arrangement. More and more adorable by the minute. Tara knew she was smiling; she couldn't help herself.

"C'mon, Dopey Maclay, let's go siddown." Buffy gently grasped Tara's elbow and began to lead her to the table.

"Dopey Maclay?" Tara held her ground and looked at Buffy inquiringly, her eyebrow nearly lost in her hairline.

Buffy couldn't hold back a giggle. "If you could see the grin on your face right now, you'd understand."

Tara turned a very dark shade of crimson and tried to rid herself of the incriminating grin. But she just wasn't able to not smile. "I can't help it, Buffy. When I look at her, I I don't do it consciously. It just happens." She looked down for a moment and then returned her gaze to Buffy. "I don't know if that makes sense or not."

"It makes sense, Tara," Buffy said, assuring Tara that she understood. Her face took on a more serious expression as she regarded the blue eyes looking back at her. "Tara..." She paused, searching for the right words.

"What is it, Buffy?" Tara noticed the change in Buffy's demeanor and became concerned.

"Um...I know I don't really have to tell you this, but I wouldn't be worthy of being Willow's friend if I didn't say it." Buffy waited for a sign from Tara to continue. When the sign came in the form of a nod, she continued. "She's worth a bazillion of those dopey smiles, Tara. So...if you're you aren't going to be around to lose count of them, let her know now so I have fewer pieces to pick up and glue back together, okay?"

Tara listened to Buffy and carefully read between the lines. "Buffy," she spoke slowly, maintaining eye contact with the concerned hazel eyes, "there is more to what happened last year than you ever mentioned in your emails. I'm right, aren't I?"

Buffy lowered her eyes. "Yes, there's more." Realizing the implications of that statement, Buffy's eyes widened and, looking at Tara once again, quickly continued. "But, Tara, you have to underst-"

A hand on Buffy's shoulder interrupted her explanation. "It's okay, Buffy. I do understand. Willow and I still have a lot to talk about." Tara paused and took a deep breath, steeling her nerves. "I know Willow will try to downplay how much I hurt her; she'll try to take all the blame."

Buffy nodded. "She'll do that alright. That's how Willow is."

"Yes, it is." Tara smiled sadly and glanced at the redhead, who was still arranging salt and pepper shakers. She returned her gaze to Buffy and continued. "At some point, I'd like you and I to talk as well. I think I'll need to hear about some of the stuff you left out. Is that okay?"

"Of course, Tara. Just...promise you won't hurt her. I don't think she can take that."

"I can't promise that, Buffy." Tara quickly held up a hand to stop Buffy's protest. "But," she continued, "but...I can promise that I will never willingly hurt her. That's not on my 'to-do' list." Tara squeezed the shoulder under her hand. "And I can promise that I'm not going anywhere. I have every intention of counting each and every dopey smile."

Buffy looked into Tara's eyes and found just what she was looking for. She smiled and pulled Tara into a brief but firm hug. When she stepped back, all traces of worry were gone. "Thanks, Tara. I can't tell you how much better I feel. I worry about her."

"No, Buffy...thank you. You're a great friend and I can tell that you took good care of her - especially in the last year. I'll always be grateful to you for that."

"Hey, no worries. Willow spent lots of time taking care of me too. Plus, you know as well as I do, being Will's friend isn't a hardship."

"You're right, I do know that." Tara cocked her head to one side and regarded Buffy with a lopsided grin. "I can say the same about you. I've considered you a friend ever since I got the letter saying Willow had met the new girl at school."

Buffy's eyes widened in surprise. "Really? Willow and I didn't even realize we'd become such good friends at that point. How could you know?"

"I don't know, Buffy," Tara shrugged, "just a hunch. But Willow knew. She told me in that letter."

"Wow. She never told me that," Buffy whispered. She snuck a glance at Willow and smiled at her friend's constant fidgeting. "We're pretty damned lucky, Tara."

"That we are, Buffy," Tara agreed. She gave Buffy a gentle nudge and nodded her head in Willow's direction. "Come on. I'm hungry. And I think it's time we saved the salt and pepper shakers, don't you?"

Pepper shaker to napkin holder squared plus napkin holder to salt shaker squared equals pepper shaker to salt shaker squared.

Willow had finished wiping down the table and chairs a few minutes earlier. She noticed, however, that she was still alone. A quick look across the patio showed Tara and Buffy deep in conversation. The smile each woman was wearing faded and Willow could tell that the conversation and turned to more serious topics. Probably talking about me. She'd considered calling out to them, but decided to let them continue their discussion. I'll hear about it later, right? My two best friends...talking about me...they're bound to tell me. I'll just wait and look like I'm busy. Shifting items around on the table seemed to occupy her hands; moving them into geometric shapes occupied her mind. Wish I had some Lego's...or Lincoln logs...I could make a three-dimensional rhombus.

"Hey, look! Will made an icicle-y triangle," Buffy exclaimed as she plopped down in the chair across from Willow. Her pronouncement was met with giggles from Tara and an exaggerated case of rolling eyes from Willow.

"Buffy," Tara chuckled, "it's an isosceles triangle." She took the seat next to Willow and scooted her chair closer to the table -- and closer to the redhead on her right.

"Oh, she knows that, Tara," Willow said, leaning on the left armrest of her chair. "Ever since she read The Rivals and fell in love with Mrs. Malaprop, it's a little game she plays." During her explanation, Willow's left hand moved slightly and made contact with Tara's knee. Without truly realizing it, the back of her hand gently caressed part way up Tara's thigh and back to her knee. "She's especially fond of playing when it comes to geometry and math. She's pretty good at it too. There was this one time...."

Tara was well aware of the touch. She knew Willow was speaking, but she couldn't hear the words over the pounding of her heart. Struggling to keep her breathing even, Tara shifted slightly so that her upper body leaned closer to Willow, but moved her legs further away. She saw Willow's hand chase after her leg and quickly grasped the hand in her own, squeezing slightly. The blush inching up Willow's neck once she discovered what she was doing made Tara smile; she gave the redhead a quick wink.

All the gods and little fishes, Buffy thought as she considered the display before her, how adorable can these two get? I'll tell ya...pretty darned adorable! For years she'd wondered about Willow's apparent need to remain single. The redhead often refused dates - from men and women - and the few times she did make the concession, it was usually because Buffy begged. But now. Now Buffy understood. She just knew there was no point. She always knew where her heart was. If Buffy were honest with herself, she'd admit that she was a little jealous of the women sitting across from her. Okay, maybe more than a little jealous. Buffy didn't have much luck when it came to relationships. While she always said it didn't bother her, that "it would happen when it happened," Buffy knew that wasn't true. She wanted to find "the one" more than anything else. So, yes, she was jealous of Willow and Tara. Eight years on different continents... eight years without seeing or talking to each other...even a year of no communication whatsoever...and still it's like they've always been together. But the smile on Willow's face, the sparkle in her green eyes, made Buffy's heart nearly burst. No, she could never begrudge Willow that kind of happiness.

"Hey, Buffy...Willow." Buffy was starteled out of her thoughts by the voice of the woman standing by their table. "How are you two doing? Don't see ya around much, Buff. Willow has an excuse, what's yours?"

"Hi, Rachel," Willow piped up, stepping in to save her friend. "You know Buffy, always busy. And you really shouldn't excuse me...I only live two hours away. I really should visit more." She saw the grateful look in Buffy's eyes and gave her a playful kick under the table.

Rachel looked at Willow thoughtfully for a moment. "Yep, you're right." She then put her hands flat on the table, leaning in to lend emphasis to her words. "So where in the hell have you been, Rosenberg?"

Willow chuckled and patted Rachel's hand. "I'm sorry, Rach. I promise I'll visit more often." She drew her hand away and instinctively closed it over Tara's, effectively capturing the blonde's hand in both of hers. Willow looked at their joined hands then gazed into Tara's eyes, smiling all the while.

This gesture did not go unnoticed by Rachel. She gave Buffy a sideways glance and raised her eyebrows in question. Her answer came in the form of a smirk and a wink. Well well well, Little Willow. I'll be damned. "So," Rachel broke the brief silence, "who's this blue-eyed beauty?" She looked directly at Tara and gave the woman her most charming smile. "What's your name, cutie?"

Tara saw the mischievous twinkle in Rachel's eyes and decided to play along. Giving the server a sweet smile, Tara leaned forward. "It's Tara...with two a's...and one r," she replied.

"Well now, that is a nice name." Rachel quickly noticed the playful tone in Tara's voice. Oh, I like this girl. She's fun. "Are you in town for a visit? Or were you thinking of something more...permanent?"

Tara couldn't see Willow's face, but she imagined what it must look like. She could feel the tense energy radiating off the redhead. Tara stole a glance at Buffy and saw her trying to hold in a giggle. The corner of her mouth twitched into a sly grin and she returned her attention to the flirtatious woman leaning next to her. "Well, that depends on what Sunnydale has to offer me. There's a lot to consider. I'd really have to...take in...the town."

"Oh, definitely," Rachel virtually oozed charm as she leaned on her elbows and propped her chin in one hand. "You have to experiences all of the sights, sounds Sunnydale to really appreciate it. If you want some pointers, you could, um, just let me know." She chuckled internally as she watched Willow over Tara's shoulder. The color on the redhead's face was rapidly matching the color of her hair. Oh, yeah...she's got it bad. Gotta remember to thank Buffy for the gossip.

Tara took the opportunity to lean back in her chair, positioning herself closer to Willow in the process. She casually draped one hand over the arm of Willow's chair and grasped her knee. "Well, I've got Willow here me the ropes. I'm sure I'll be just fine. But thanks for the offer." She smiled sweetly at Rachel, but the caress on the inside of Willow's knee made Tara's claim very clear. That's it, sweetie. Relax. Just a little game.

"Well, Tara, you just make sure Willow shows you all that Sunnydale has to offer." Rachel winked at Tara. Hearing the quiet wheezing sounds coming from Buffy, who was turning red in an attempt to hold in her laughter, Rachel gave the blonde a quick kick to the shin and shot her a look of warning. "I mean, we wouldn't want Willow forgetting anything and leaving you less than satisfied now, would we?"

"Oh, I don't think that will be a problem," Tara replied, looking directly into Rachel's eyes her tone turning serious. "Willow has everything I need."

Willow simply couldn't be still any longer. The combination of jealousy over the flirting and the sensual touch of Tara's hand on her knee was making Willow's heart pound uncontrollably. "Hey! Sitting right here! Sitting exactly right here!" Feeling thoroughly possessive, Willow wrapped an arm around Tara, catching her about the waist and pulling their bodies closer together. "I will show Tara around Sunnydale...I'll show her anything she needs or wants to see."

She couldn't take it anymore. It was building up more and more. In the midst of the somewhat tense atmosphere at the table, Buffy broke into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. As the tears rolled down her face, Buffy rolled out of her chair. She was earning stares from other customers at the Deli, but Buffy didn't care. What she had just witnessed was at once ridiculous and heart-warming. The look of clear confusion on Willow's face and the knowing smirk on Tara's brought on a new round of hyperventilating laughter. Buffy just couldn't help it.

Since she was leaning close to Willow, Tara could still feel the tension coursing through the redhead's body. Okay, tease threshold breached. Time to diffuse the situation. "Rachel, can you help Giggling McGee over there get off the floor?" After receiving a nod of agreement from the smirking server, Tara turned her chair so that she was directly facing Willow. She lifted a hand to clear away a few strands of hair from Willow's face and waited for the redhead to look at her. When she realized Willow had her eyes closed and was taking slow, deep breaths, Tara decided it was time to make her move. "Willow? Come on, sweetie. I need you to look at me."

Willow lifted her head and opened her eyes. "I'm sorry, Tara," she whispered as she gazed deeply into clear pools of blue.

"No, Will, I'm sorry. That shouldn't have gone on for so long. It probably shouldn't have gone on at all." Tara spoke softly and caressed Willow's cheek adoringly. "I didn't mean to upset you."

Willow leaned into the soft touch and gave Tara a shy smile. "That's not why I'm sorry, Tara. I'm sorry for getting...I don't know...all grabby and possessive. Beating my chest and grunting 'mine' might have been more subtle," she chuckled ruefully and looked down at her lap.

"Well," Tara began, "why didn't you?" As expected, green eyes quickly looked at her in confusion. Her hand slid down the side of Willow's neck, finally resting on her collarbone. "I mean, I wouldn't want you beating on your chest..." Tara smiled coyly, "bruises aren't fun. But having other people know I'm yours doesn't bother me. In fact, I like it." She could feel Willow's heartbeat under her fingers. So fast. I do that.

"Really?" Willow's grin was radiant.

"Really. I'm just glad you're not upset, Will"

"Oh! I'm upset...really upset!" Willow felt Tara's muscles tense and quickly grabbed both of the blonde's hands in her own. "I'm upset that I didn't start flirting with you first." She squeezed Tara's hands and felt her relax.

"Oh, I see. So, you're not mad at Rachel?"

Willow snorted in amusement. "Are you kidding? Rachel's safe...Deb would string her up by her toes if she thought Rachel's flirting was serious. I know she's just playing around. Heck, Buffy and I have both been victims of Rachel Flirt Fests...she's very good."

"Yes, she is." Tara leaned forward so that their foreheads were touching and she closed her eyes. "But flirting with you, my willowy Will, is so much more fulfilling."

As if by mutual agreement, they each pulled away and looked into each other's eyes. Willow lifted their joined hands and placed a soft kiss on each of Tara's palms. "I'd rather flirt with you than anyone else in the world, Tara."

"Then, we'll just have to flirt more often. There's nothing I want more in this world than to make sure you're happy, Will. I promise."

"Yo! Are you two finished with the googly eyes yet?" Rachel's voice cut across the table.

"No." Willow and Tara spoke in one voice.

"Well, okay then," Rachel chuckled. "How about I get your orders and you can go back to your special world, huh?"

"Oh, I'll have the-"

"Yeah, yeah. The Demon Sub. I know, Buffy, I know." Rachel rolled her eyes at Buffy's predictability. "How about you, Will? The usual?"

"That will be fine." Willow's eyes didn't leave Tara's.

"Sweetie, I'm going to place my order now. And I saw a bathroom on the way in...I'm gonna go use it," Tara spoke softly. "But, um, as much as I don't want you to, you have to let go of my hands. I'll bring them back."

Willow reluctantly let go of Tara's hands, but the smile on her face remained.

"Thanks, Sweetie." Tara placed a quick kiss on the tip of Willow's nose and turned to Rachel. "Um, Caesar Salad?"

"Yep, we got that. Best Caesar Salad in Sunnydale too," Rachel enthused.

"Great. Extra cheese, please." She turned her attention back to Willow. "I'll be right back." She waited for Willow's nod and then left the table.

Willow watched Tara's retreating form and leaned back into her chair with a sigh. Yep. I'm totally, unbelievably, head-over-heels in love. She wrapped her arms around herself to hold onto the shiver of excitement that ran through her body. Totally.

Rachel slid around the table and sat in Tara's unoccupied seat. "Hey, Willow, are you okay?"

Green eyes regarded the woman next to her, her own dopey grin plastered on her face. "Oh yeah. I'm great. Perfect."

Rachel and Buffy looked at each other and giggled. "That's what we figured," Buffy chimed in. "Time for another confession, Will...I told Rachel a few days ago that you would be in town...and about today. I promised her and Deb that I'd be sure to bring you by to say hello. We just didn't think it would be so soon."

"Yeah, Willow," Rachel added. "You know I was just playing around. And, no, Deb would not string me up by my toes, but I'd be sleeping on the couch for a week if I weren't playing. So, you were sort of right."

Willow chuckled good-naturedly and leaned over to give Rachel a hug. "I know, Rach. You're my friend. I know you wouldn't do anything hurtful. I'm not upset with you...really. Everything is just fine." She gave the woman a gentle shove. "Now go put in our orders, Missy. We're hungry. Oh! And can Tara and I each have a lemonade, please?"

"Sure thing, Will. I'll be back in a bit." Rachel smiled at Willow and Buffy and walked away from the table.

"Rach! Iced tea for me!" Buffy called out. After seeing the confirming okay sign from Rachel, Buffy turned back to the happy redhead across from her. "So, Will, what's the plan for the rest of the day?"

"Um, I'm not really sure, Buff. We don't have anything set. I guess we're just playing it by ear." Willow thought for a moment and continued. "Tara said the airline lost one of her bags, but they are delivering it to her hotel. So, I guess at some point we'll go to her hotel to get her bag and check her in. Then I suppose we'll figure out when we're going to meet up tomorrow and I'll come back to your place." She looked at Buffy, raising her eyebrows in question. "Why? What did you have in mind?"

"Nothing...I was just wondering," Buffy replied. "I just thought you two might have discussed different things to do."

"Nope, we've just been enjoying being together." Once again, Willow couldn't contain her smile.

"Well, that's pretty obvious, Will. In all the years I've known you, I've never seen you this happy." Buffy reached across the table and grasped Willow's hand. "It looks good on you, Willow."

Willow squeezed Buffy's hand and spoke seriously to her friend. "Thank you, Buffy...for everything. 'Best friend' just doesn't do you justice. I love you, Buff. I don't know what I would have done without you."

Buffy swallowed the lump in her throat and held back the tears that were threatening to spill. "I know, Will. I love you, too. I'm glad you're my friend." She saw Willow's eyes twinkle as they drifted to a spot over Buffy's shoulder. "Now I think it's time you told her that, don't you?" Seeing Willow's wide-eyed look, Buffy chuckled and gave her a smug wink. "Sorry, Will. It's pretty obvious."

A moment later, Tara slid into her seat. She snuck her arm underneath Willow's and nonchalantly placed her hand on the redhead's lower thigh. "Hey, Buffy...why were you looking for Willow today?"

Some time later, Buffy pushed her plate away from her. "Ugh! I'm so full you're gonna have to roll me out of here," she proclaimed.

"Well," Willow chirped, "that's what you get for eating a Demon Sub, two pickles, three bags of chips and the rest of Tara's salad." She turned her attention to Tara. "Honestly, I don't know how she does it. I've known the girl for 7 years and she's never gained a pound. Not a single pound...I think it's unnatural."

"I can't help it if I have some sort of super-metabolism." Buffy shrugged. "It runs in the family. Mom is the same way."

"How is your mom, Buffy?" Tara inquired. "Does she like New York?"

"She's having a blast!" Buffy grabbed the abandoned pickle from Willow's plate and took a bite. She continued talking as she chewed. "Apparently she has free reign in the gallery. She can bring in whatever shows she wants; she can spend as much money as she wants. Plus...and I forgot to tell you this, Will...she's dating again."

"Really?" Willow practically squealed in delight. "That's so great, Buff. So, who's the guy? What's he like? How did they meet? C'mon, woman, details!"

Buffy laughed and took another bite of the pickle. "Geez, Will...she just started seeing him. There's not much to tell yet." Buffy took a moment to finish off the pickle and continued. "Let's see...he's some sort of British historian. I guess he's a guest professor at NYU or something like that. He went into the gallery one day wanting to borrow some slides for a lecture he was giving...and the rest is...well...history."

"How cool! Does he have a name?"

"Of course he does, Will!" Buffy's smirk quickly turned to a frown as she tried to remember the man's name. "Um....Jeeves? No...Giles! That's it. Something Giles. I think it starts with an R."

"Rupert?" Tara excitedly burst into the conversation. "Rupert Giles?"

"Yeah! That's you know him or something?"

"Well, I don't know him. I know of him," Tara clarified. "He's a pretty big name in England. I went to one of his lectures once. He's really quite amazing." She looked at Willow and Buffy sheepishly and blushed slightly. "He's considered quite dashing. And he's brilliant."

"Well, well," Buffy leaned back in her chair and smiled, "let's hear it for my mom! She can still catch the brilliant hotties."

"She's going to be so proud of you, Buff. Less than two months on the job and already getting a promotion." Willow's own pride in her best friend was evident in her smile.

"Well, it's not official. Tony said I'd run my own campaigns if I keep up the good work," Buffy clarified. She then gave a sly grin. "But since I have every intention of keeping it up, I'm probably looking at a promotion in another two months."

"Congratulations, Buffy," Tara offered. "That's really great."

"Thanks, Tare."

"Hey, ladies." A woman with short, dark hair interrupted their conversation. "Mind if I butt in for a minute?" She turned to Tara and smiled. "Hi, I'm Deb. You must be Tara."

"Yes. It's nice to meet you, Deb." Tara shook the woman's hand and returned the smile. "You've got a fabulous place here. I really like it."

"Thanks, we do what we can." Deb looked at the other two women at the table. "And you two just need to come by more often. We've missed you around here."

"I've missed you all, too," Willow broke in. "I promise, I'll be by to visit more often now that I'm settled in LA."

"Yeah, I'll come by too, Deb. I've been remiss about stopping in. I'll do better," Buffy added.

"Good. Now, I won't keep you...I understand this is Tara's first day back in town." Deb again made eye contact with Tara and smiled. "Welcome back, Tara. I hope you'll join these two and visit us again. Hell, you don't even need them if you want to visit. You're welcome here anytime."

"Thank you."

"All right. I'm back to work now. I just wanted to stop by, say hello, and let you know that your meal is on the house today." Deb held up a hand to forestall the oncoming protests. "Stop. Just take advantage of my good nature." She winked at the three women and turned to leave. "See you all later."

"Thanks, Deb," Buffy called out.

"Wow. That was really nice of her," Tara enthused.

"Yeah, Deb's great." Willow clapped her hands once and rubbed them together. "So, shall we be going? We have to go check on your missing luggage and get you checked in to the hotel, Tare."

The disappointment in Tara's eyes was obvious. I guess the day is coming to an end. It was clear that she didn't want to leave Willow, but her luggage was still in limbo and she really did want to take a shower and relax. Wish I could just do that with Willow tonight. Tara blushed a deep crimson as she realized what she had just thought. "Um, yeah...we should probably go." She tried to cover her embarrassment.

It was clear to Buffy that both women were not happy at the prospect of separating. Time to put my plan into action. "Actually, I had a thought." Buffy gave Willow a quick look and wagged her finger at the redhead. "No comments from the peanut gallery, you!" She joined Willow in a round of giggles. "Anyway, my thought...Tara, stay at my house."

"At your house?" Tara looked from Buffy to Willow, who was also visibly confused, and back to Buffy.

"Yes, at my house. Look, I've got another bedroom...lots of space. So, there's no point in you paying for a hotel room. Save your money and...I don't know...treat us to Dairy Queen sometime." Buffy leaned across the table and took Tara's hand. She then looked at Willow and grasped her hand as well. "It's simple. I have the room. You're both my friends. I know you don't want to say goodnight and go your separate ways until tomorrow. So, Tara, just go get your luggage and come back to my place." Buffy smiled and looked from one friend to the other. "Good, that's settled." She placed Tara's hand firmly in Willow's and stood up from the table. "I'll see you guys in a little while. I'm gonna head home and break out the popcorn." With that, she turned and walked out of the Deli.

Willow and Tara looked at each other with widened eyes, clearly in shock.

"Well, I guess we should head back to your car then," Willow said, breaking the stunned silence.

Tara looked down at their clasped hands and felt a lopsided grin make it's way onto her face. She lifted her head to gaze at Willow and her grin turned into a full-blown smile. "Yeah. I guess we should."

Continue to Coming Back Chapter 13a

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