On the wide expanse of lawn that fit snugly between the Memorial Chapel and the constant, frenzied motion of Route One traffic, a dozen students wearing matching jerseys stood in a circle, kicking a pair of soccer balls around in preparation for the intramural season. At the instruction of one of the players, they switched drills, and began practicing their handling; in pairs of two, they dashed between orange cones while keeping the ball underfoot, then passed it to the next teammate. An errant kick sent one of the balls skittering down a hill toward a paved path, which curled around the edge of the grass and ran parallel to the drive that led up the hill to the chapel. Two young women walking along the path stalled their conversation so that the shorter of the two, a tiny girl with a blonde ponytail, could halt the ball with the tip of one of her designer boots. She planted a firm kick, sending the ball sailing over the head of the student who'd trotted over to retrieve it. The kick arced high in the air and traveled forty yards, landing directly in the hands of the player who was waiting next in line. The students looked on in collective awe as the girls continued down the path.
"Showoff," Willow chastised with a mischievous grin, once they were out of earshot.
Buffy let a smug look flicker across her face, then fell back into the pleading tones of their interrupted conversation. "But, Will, seriously: you've got to go! It wouldn't be the same without you. Besides, it'd be the perfect opportunity for you to get to know Cordy as something outside of the whole living in the same room thing."
"Yeah," Willow allowed grudgingly, "that's true. But, I don't know, Buffy, it's-it's just not me. I mean, a frat party? You know I'm not much for the drinking, since I'm not even supposed to, and I can't dance worth a-wait, they do still dance at parties, right? Am I expected to dance? And I'm sort of awful with big groups, especially big groups of people I've never met before, and I just know I look awful in a toga!"
"Will, it's not a-"
"-Besides, I'd only know you, and I know you don't need a fearful, clinging, party-pooper of a friend to hold you back from your own fun-having. You'd do much better without me, with all the meeting of the boys, and plus you get along with Cordelia, who probably knows even more people, so you'd-"
"Right, sorry. Um, so how'd you hear about this party, anyway? Did Cordelia invite you?"
Buffy nodded. "Yeah. She said one of her friends at Delta was dating one of the KA guys, and I guess there's a lot of, uh, intermingling between the houses."
Willow raised an eyebrow, but didn't ask the question that was forming on her lips. Instead, she reached out and punched the button for the crosswalk. The girls trotted across the road when the cars stopped, and approached the diner. When they reached the door, Buffy spun on her friend.
"So you are going, right?"
Willow frowned. "Can we just..." she waved her hand at the diner's door, the motion obviously completing her thought.
"I'll let it go," Buffy permitted, "for now. But don't think you've escaped!"
The diner was in full swing when they entered-busy, but not operating at the frantic pace they'd seen during previous visits. After standing for a moment near the entrance, a waitress approached, welcoming them with a smile. Mousy brown hair framed her face, and Willow couldn't help noticing that her eyes had a habit of darting about nervously whenever she stood still.
"Hello. Welcome to Plato's," she greeted. "Table for two?"
Willow glanced about the room. "It Tar-oh, there she is," she remarked, spying the blonde waitress taking the order of an elderly couple across the room. "Uh, we would like a table, actually. Yes."
"All right, if you'll follow me, please," their hostess offered, leading the girls in the other direction, toward a table by the window. Willow lagged behind a step, trying to get Tara's attention, and when she finally caught her eye, the blonde hurried over.
"Hey, Willow, Buffy," she said, nodding to each in turn. "I'm off shift just as soon as Mark gets here; it should be j-just a few more minutes, I think." Tara fought to keep her nerves calm, although her insides were roiling. 'They actually showed up. Our shopping date is on. That's-that's good, right? No reason to panic. Don't botch this, Tara; don't you dare. And pay attention; she's talking.'
"Cool," the redhead replied. She inclined her head toward the other waitress, who was waiting for them at the empty table. "We were going to grab some food, actually; both of us had a really early lunch, today, so we're kind of big with the hunger."
"Would you want to eat with us, by the way?" Buffy asked. "After your shift, I mean. Or is that an awkward thing, eating at the restaurant you work at? I mean, I wouldn't have been caught dead eating at the Doublemeat Palace, but, well, you know-the food here is actually edible."
"N-no. Richard suggests it, actually; he says it's a good practice for the staff to sample everything on the menu, so that they can, um, make better recommendations."
"Well, good," Willow chirped, sliding into one of the seats, "we'll just get some drinks, then, and wait for you to join us."
"So magic, huh?"
Faith could read the deer-in-headlights expression that had taken up residence on Tara's face since the moment her friends had arrived, and knew her teasing would hit the mark. She moved in for the kill. "You know...you, Buffy-" She purposefully paused, gauging Tara's reaction to the girl's name, but surprisingly saw only confusion. "-and Red. You know, shopping? Magic Box?" 'Ah, there it is,' she thought, as a fresh wave of embarrassment brought color to Tara's cheeks, and forced her eyes to open just a smidgen wider. "You did accept the invite, right? I assume so, after the panic you flew into when you didn't have a way to reach 'em."
"N-no. I mean, yes. I-I accepted th-th-yes, I'm g-going with them."
"Good! I was starting to get worried that you harbored some pretty serious antisocial tendencies after you threw me out of your apartment on Saturday."
Halfway between shame and shock, Tara stammered, "Threw you-? N-no, Faith, I didn't-it was great having you over, r-really. The movie-well, the first hour of the movie was great, too. I just, um...well, I didn't think m-my father would want me to have anyone over to the apartment without asking first. And I needed an early night; I, uh, I didn't really sleep very well on Friday."
By this point, Faith was snickering. "Hey, T, it's cool, really. I was just teasin' you. It didn't bother me at all. Sorry, it's just...you make it so easy." She shrugged her arms apologetically, then smiled. Pointing at the diner's entrance, where a young man was wiping his shoes on the mat, she said, "Hey, here comes the cavalry. You got any tables running?"
"Just one," Tara answered. "Be right back." She strode out into the dining area, intent on finishing up her shift without the butterflies in her stomach carrying her away. 'Don't look at her,' she thought. 'Don't even glance over into that section. What are you-you're looking! You're supposed to be bringing your customers their check, but instead you're ogling this girl, whom you already know to be straight, might I add-straight and taken, and even if she wasn't, she probably wouldn't even-oh my gosh, she's looking back at you!' The corners of the redhead's mouth curled up, and she gave a shy little wave in Tara's direction. 'RED ALERT! Watch where you're going; this is where klutzy Tara stumbles over a chair, or falls sideways into the orchestra pit and sprains the wrist of Mr. Larson's favorite violinist.' She managed, much to her relief, to do neither of these things, instead delivering the check to her final table and regrouping in the kitchen, where Faith and Mark had been looking on in amusement. To avoid their snickering a moment longer, she rinsed her hands at one of the many sinks.
"Okay, Tare. I got your section," Mark said, stepping up behind her. "Go, go: your date awaits you."
Tara swiveled around, her stunned reaction directed toward Faith instead of the young man. "M-my date?!"
"I said nothing," the chef insisted, her hands raised defensively as if they could ward off the accusation. "Mark, don't even bother teasing; she won't get it. Clearly she's in Panic Mode." Even Faith couldn't continue without a wry, knowing grin spreading across her face.
The waitress frowned at her friend. "I'm not in-It's not a-you know what?" She thwumped the faucet off with a little more force than was necessary, and slipped her apron up over her head, compressing the fabric into a volleyball-sized wad. "Y-you two are just trying to get a rise out of me, so...I'm just going to go over there," she finished lamely, firing the apron ball at Faith, who snatched it from the air with practiced ease.
The two coworkers watched her stomp off, and they moved closer together, their voices lowering conspiratorially. "You're right," Mark confessed, "that was fun. But what was it all about, anyway?"
"I think T's got the hots for that blonde over at table three."
Mark's eyes bulged, and he tactlessly spun and stared after the waitress, who was indeed approaching a pair of girls at table three. His mouth struggled to keep up with his mind. "The hots for-Tara does?"
Faith followed his gaze to the table. "Sure looks that way," she verified.
A number of synapses fired simultaneously in the boy's brain, searching for and landing upon the perfect response. "Huh," he said. Another few seconds passed as his mental filing system tried to recategorize the waitress into different boxes, then gave up and relocated her to an entirely separate section. That done, he offered a cool, collected assessment of the newfound information. "Good taste," he decided.
"That's what I said!"
Her confidence fueled by the ribbing from her coworkers, Tara strode up to the table where Willow and her friend sipped at sodas. The girls were pointing out tempting appetizers on the menu to each other.
"Hi," Tara said.
Willow beamed. "Hey, you."
"Well, fancy meeting you here," Buffy quipped. She began moving their coats and purses out of the way, but before she could clear any room, Willow scooted over, and Tara eased into the booth beside the redhead.
"I know, what are the odds?" Tara joked along, reaching for a menu despite having most of it memorized from her first week of work.
Willow performed some quick calculations in her head. "Two to one," she answered. "Well, I mean, historically, anyway." A pair of blank stares met her. "What? I'm just-fine, I fail at joking." The redhead adopted a pout, onto which Tara immediately attached a mental tag: 'Precious.'
"Well, now it's funny," Tara giggled, easing the blow of her teasing with the lightest brush of her fingertips upon Willow's arm. She didn't know which startled her more: how natural it felt to reach out and touch the girl, or how her hand seemed to navigate by its own impulses. It lit upon Willow's upper arm such that three fingers and a thumb rested on fabric, while the pinky curled underneath so that it grazed over smooth skin when extended. The hard years of Tara's life had taught her that hope-a cherished feeling, certainly-could be dangerous when allowed to rise to the surface; it was safer to keep such a treasure buried deeply, where the talons of the world couldn't tear at it. Such safeguards flew out the window, however, when she felt Willow lean into the touch with the most infinitesimal of movements. 'It could just as easily have been fidgeting, discomfort, or even just a breath at the right moment,' she reminded herself hastily, but she was too late; hope had already burst forth from its cocoon, unfurled its wings, and taken flight. A fluttering warmth spread outward from her stomach.
"So, Tara, Andrew tells us you painted those yourself," Buffy mentioned, indicating the two works on the wall. "They're really good."
"Oh, um, th-thank you. They're pretty old; I brought them here from our old house."
"Do you still paint?" Willow asked, her voice reduced to a half-whisper.
The corner of Tara's mouth twitched in something akin to a frown. "Not really," she sighed. "I'd like to, it's just been, you know, busy...and I guess the creative winds have been, uh, less windy than usual?"
"That's too bad," Buffy remarked, "Willow was hopin' she could get one for her room."
Grape soda flooded the redhead's nasal cavity as she tried to bark her objection. "What?! No-no, I wasn't-I didn't say that!" she sputtered. Realizing what she'd just said, Willow began backpedaling immediately. "Not that they're not amazing, like I wouldn't want one, because of course I'd-I mean, just, you know, that would be all with the presumption, 'cause it's not like we invite you out to go shopping one day, then we're automatically entitled to make requests of your artistic genius, and-and-" She trailed off, sensing that she was being humored. "-and you're laughing at me, again, aren't you?"
"N-no," Tara managed between giggles, "you're just too cute."
"I'm laughing at you," Buffy admitted.
"You see?" Willow complained in mock exasperation, shaking her head and looking at the girl beside her. "Do you see what great friends I have?"
Their waitress picked that moment to sidle up to the table. "Hey, folks," she greeted. "Do you all know what you'd like to order?" She lifted her hand to the side of her mouth so that only Buffy could see it, but spoke loud enough for all to hear. "This one is always so indecisive," she teased, tilting her head in Tara's direction.
Buffy smirked. "Could I get the moussaka?" she decided.
"Uh, one sec," Willow pleaded. A minute ago, she'd had her order memorized and was fully prepared to reel it off, but that was before Tara had called her cute. At present, she approximated eighty percent of her total brainpower was actively being used to replay the utterance of those four simple words: 'you're just too cute.' She buried her head in her menu, scrambling to recall her order, but the words weren't stringing together in anything resembling coherence.
"I'd like the Black Forest ham on rye, with Swiss cheese and Dijon mustard," Tara ordered, pleased that she'd chosen quickly and confidently, without even a trace of a stutter.
"Ooh, actually, that sounds really good," Willow agreed. "Could I get that, too? Um, with a chocolate milkshake, please."
Tara perked up. "Oh, good idea. Make that two."
"Uh, three?" Buffy added.