Return to The Game of Love Chapter Eighty-Two

The Game of Love

Author: Shai
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: Unfortunately neither Tara nor Willow are mine. Neither's anyone else in this fic for that matter!

Tara slowly opened one eye, and strained her ear for the sound she thought she'd just heard. Sure enough, she heard the buzzing that had managed to penetrate her dreamless sleep, and groggily opened her other eye. Sitting up, she managed to rise and stumble her way to the door of her apartment. Reaching her front door, Tara pushed the button next to it, "Yeah?"

Her voice was thick with sleep, and that fact was apparent to the person downstairs, "Let me in, you lazy ass!"

Tara recognized the voice, and pushed the button that would unlock the entrance to the apartment building. 'Who's she calling a lazy ass?' she yawned, making her way to the kitchen. 'Ok, she's right' the blonde acknowledged, noting that the oven-clock read 10:03 a.m. She'd just turned the coffee machine on when Anya walked through the open door of her apartment and dropped her bags on the couch.

"Morning sunshine!" she smiled brightly, earning a glower from Tara, who then walked to a cabinet to pull out a box of Cheerios. "Oooook" the other blonde said, raising both her arms in a gesture of submission. "Sleep late?" Tara nodded, filling up a bowl of cereal for herself. "How come?" Anya asked, and without waiting for Tara's answer excitedly asked, "Ooh, is Willow here?"

Tara reached into the bowl in front of her and threw a Cheerio at Anya. "No" she muttered, "I was working on some scripts. And then I finished packing for this evening." Her friend nodded, and pulled out a cup from the cabinet beside her. "You?"

"I spent the night at Xander's" Anya winked, and proceeded to pour two cups of coffee. Tara waited for her to add milk and sugar to the beverages, and both women made their way to the small dining table. Anya placed her cup down, and walked back to the couch to pull something out of her handbag. "Here" she said, placing a plastic disc-case in front of Tara before pulling out a chair for herself.

"What is this?" Tara asked, putting her spoon down to pick up the unmarked disc-case, and opening it to see an unmarked DVD.

"All the best Ellen DeGeneres Show moments recommended on Youtube" her friend answered. Seeing Tara's blank expression, she shrugged "She's like the lesbian Pope or something" and sipped her coffee.

Tara sounded exasperated, "Umm, thanks? But what difference does that make to me?"

Anya rolled her eyes, "Well, I figured you deserved a coming out present, or something. And I wanted to give you something relevant."

Coming from Anya, that explanation actually made sense in a strange way, and Tara smiled for the first time that morning. "Thanks Ahn" she said, reaching out to squeeze her friend's hand.

"You're welcome...and I don't think you want to do that" she added, waggling her eyebrows at their joined hands. To answer Tara's curious look, she simply added, "I haven't showered since last night..."

"Oh! Ewww!!!!" Tara exclaimed, pulling her hand back immediately. "You're a pig, you know that?!"

Anya nodded, but couldn't hide her smirk, "I know! Anyway, I've also added the first season of this lesbian TV show called The L Word on there. I hear there are some scenes that might give you some pointers on what to do if you and Willow ever get past cuddling and kissing on the cheek." Tara had just finished the last bit of her bowl of cereal, and sat there simultaneously chewing and glaring at her friend. Anya, of course, completely ignored her friend's expression, and continued in the same tone, "Speaking of which, let me see your bikini legs."

Tara opened the door of her walk-in closet, and shouted out, "Ahn! You can go in!"

Moments later, Anya entered the space, on her way to the bathroom just beyond. She looked Tara up and down, "We should take a video camera we can capture Willow drooling on camera."

Tara blushed, but couldn't hide her smile while holding out a fresh towel for her friend, "You think so?"

Anya nodded vigorously and reached out her hand for the offered towel, "Definitely. In fact, if I was inclined to swing that way..." she trailed off suggestively, waggling her eyebrows at her blonde friend.

"Oh hush you" Tara giggled in good humour, and pointed at the bathroom, "Shower, now! Wash all the Xander off you!" The sound of Anya's laughter could be heard even after she'd closed the door between the bathroom and closet, and a grinning Tara turned to survey herself in the full-length mirror. She appraised her choice of wardrobe, and was satisfied with her choice of well-fitting white board shorts that went mid-way down her thighs, and a blue wife-beater that more or less matched the colour of her own eyes. Nodding at her reflection, Tara bent down to scoop up all the swimmers she'd tried on and vetoed, and dumped them back into the drawer where she kept swim wear. In the end, she'd gone with a halter-neck bikini top and tie-side Brazilian bottoms, which were both pure white barring a small baby pink rose over the left breast.

Tara had given up all pretense of not caring, and had consciously dressed to attract Willow's attention. The previous afternoon had confirmed her notion that the redhead had feelings for her of the non-platonic variety, and that belief was strengthened when Anya and Cordelia told her that as much as they loved her, they'd never snuggle up to her on the couch and interlink their hands. Now all Tara had to do was work up the courage to... 'What am I supposed to do?' she wondered, picking up a hairbrush and running it through her golden tresses.

She pondered the question as she rid her hair of its tangles, and finally decided to do what felt right. She wasn't going to plan this, because so far not planning seemed to be working just fine. Tara considered wearing her hair down, but realized that keeping it up would mean that Willow would see her bikini top tied around her neck, and know she was wearing a two-piece underneath. Feeling bold, the blonde tied her hair into a high pony, and slipped into a pair of white flip-flops before stopping to peruse her reflection one more time. Pleased with what she saw, Tara picked up the beach bag that was lying packed on her bed, and dropped it down beside the ice-box by the door in her living room.

She glanced at her wristwatch, which informed her that there were still 17 minutes left before the others were due to arrive. Plunking herself onto the couch, Tara turned the TV on, and immediately tuned to Cartoon Network. She'd barely been watching for a few minutes when her house buzzer went off. Rising from her seat, Tara looked at her watch again as she pressed the button to speak to whoever was downstairs. "Hello?"

"Beam me up Scottie!"

Tara laughed, and opened the door. 'Ok, be cool cool' she reminded herself, willing her heart not to beat loud enough for the whole neighbourhood to hear when the owner of the voice she'd just heard walked through the door. She'd barely unlatched the door when the sounds of footsteps could be heard running up the stairs. Buffy was the first to enter, and smiled brightly at Tara before leaning in for a hug. "Hey" Tara smiled when they'd pulled back.

"The slow pokes should be up in a second" Buffy grinned, and sure enough Willow came trooping through the door moments later.

"You can't call it a race when one of us is lugging a beach bag up the stairs" the redhead complained, glaring in Buffy's direction.

"So you're saying that if neither of us was carrying a beach bag, you'd have won?" her petite friend asked.

"No...but that's not the point" Willow shot back, throwing one more glare at her friend before looking over at Tara. The blonde had the presence of mind to quit checking Willow out and look her in the eyes right in time to see her expression change from a frown to a wide-smile. "Hey Tara" Willow breathed, dropping the beach bag by her side and stepping in to wrap her arms around the other woman in a hug.

Tara returned the embrace, and nearly fainted when her fingers made contact with Willow's bare back. She felt her throat go dry as they parted, and was thankful when Buffy asked incredulously, "Please tell me Xander's decided to walk up backwards or something?"

Tara unsuccessfully tried to swallow when Willow grinned with the tip of her pink tongue poking out between her teeth, "Nope, he was racing too!"

Buffy stuck her head out the door and called out "You should be ashamed of yourself Harris!" as the faint sound of footsteps reached the ears of the trio of women. Both friends turned their attention to the door while they waited for their friend to walk through it, and Tara once again took the opportunity to let her eyes wander over the form of the woman standing beside her.

The redhead was wearing a pastel-yellow cotton midriff-baring tank top that simply stated 'Care Bears' in medium-sized white writing across the front. The tank top was loose enough at the bust to show off the top of what to Tara looked like a black and white striped bandeau bikini top that didn't seem to have any neck or shoulder support. The blonde let her eyes wander down Willow's body, and drank in the sight of the skin revealed from where the tank top ended. She realized that Willow's clothed form didn't do her justice, because where she seemed lanky in clothes, Willow's exposed skin was curved in all the right places.

Tara consciously licked her dry lips as she stared at Willow's innie, and noted that the toned womanly stomach gave a hint of the muscle underneath. The skin ended and was replaced by a pair of cuffed faded-blue denim shorts, which could not have been more than 15 centimeters long. The blonde wasn't complaining, because tiny shorts meant more skin to ogle, and she did justice to Willow's legs before the skin-show was stopped by white ankle socks that were swallowed by a pair of red and white classic Nike cortez sneakers.

Tara was about to let her eyes travel back up Willow's body and start the gawk-fest again when she felt a light tap on the back of her head, and realized that Anya had made her way out of the shower, and was now standing on her other side. Her friend was looking at her with a knowing expression on her face, and Tara shrugged guiltily. Anya rolled her eyes and shook her head at her friend, before making her arrival known to the other two women as well, "What am I missing here?"

Buffy and Willow turned to smile at Anya as Xander finally made it through the door. "We were racing" Buffy stated.

"And you lost to two girls?" Anya asked her boyfriend in disbelief.

Xander walked to her side with a sheepish smile on his face, and decided to ignore the question. Instead, he went with a bright "I love you", and leaned down to kiss his girlfriend.

"Yeah yeah" Anya said wryly, but with a smile playing on the corners of her lips. "You just be thankful you're so good in the sack."

There was shocked silence in the room, and Tara was the one to break it. "I apologize on behalf of my crude friend. Believe me, you'll get used to it once you've known her for a few months."

That statement seemed to break the awkwardness that Anya's blunt declaration had caused, and Willow addressed her new outspoken friend between giggles, "Anya, remember...there are some things you just don't want to know about the guy who borrowed your gym shorts in grade-school when he peed his own pants." Willow's words led to another round of hysterical laughter amongst the women, and when it died down Xander asked, "Are we done making fun of me yet?"

Buffy nodded, "For now. Sooo," she looked at Tara, "everyone here?"

Tara bobbed her head up and down, "Yup...Cordy said she's going to see us at Mike's, because we're going to need her car too. If everyone's good to go, we might as well leave now?"

When the other four mouthed their agreement, Tara picked up her beach bag and was bending to pick up the icebox when Xander stopped her, "Let me."

Tara smiled her thanks, and watched Xander and Anya head out with Buffy on their tail. She followed Willow out the door, and was pleased when the redhead waited for her to lock up and slip the house keys into a side pocket of the beach bag. Both women started to make their way down the stairs side-by-side, and Willow quietly slipped her own free arm around Tara's.

"So, I hear Anya's trying to quit smoking too?" the redhead asked.

Tara was basking in the feel of their linked arms, and nodded happily, "Yup...she figured if I could, she could too."

"How's that working out for you?"

"It's not hard really" Tara answered honestly, "It's like I've completely lost the urge to smoke."

"Are you using a nicotine patch or anything?" Willow pressed as the two women walked out of the building into the sunshine. She quickly unlinked her arm from Tara's to pull her sunglasses off the top of her head and onto her eyes, and then grabbed the blonde's arm again.

"Nope", Tara said as they joined their friends. "I think giving up a habit like smoking is all in the mind. I mean, to me it's more about your own will-power than anything else" she finished, looking at the redhead.

Willow nodded and smiled, and Tara returned the smile before turning to Anya, "You guys just follow us then?" Her friend nodded back, and quickly looked at Tara and Willow's interlinked arms before ever so slightly quirking her eyebrow at Tara. Tara was the only one who knew Anya well enough to notice what her friend had done, and couldn't help the smile that spread across her face. "Ok then...see ya!" she said, and turned to walk to her jeep.

Tara realized she had Willow all to herself when Buffy opted to follow Xander and Anya, so when the two women reached her jeep, they threw their beach bags into the back, and climbed into the front seats. Tara was already ruing the loss of physical contact with Willow as she pulled her own sunnies on. "Where's Zak?" she asked, turning the key in the ignition.

Willow buckled herself in as she answered, "At work. Buff says he'd catch up with us at the beach around 1 o'clock."

Tara turned to look at the woman sitting in the passenger seat, "Cool", she smiled. She was about to look away when a rush of boldness hit her out of nowhere, "You look really nice." She would have marveled at her own courage if Willow hadn't blushed, and smiled shyly, "Thanks."

Tara smiled at Willow, and did turn her attention to driving this time. Putting the car in gear, she was about to pull out of her parking space when Willow shyly added, "You do too..."

The drive started in compatible silence, and Tara kept checking her rearview mirror's to make sure Xander was right behind. She could feel Willow's eyes on her every so often, and allowed herself to be warmed by the feeling. The blonde was the first one to break the quiet, "I was thinking of picking up munchies for the kids, but figured we could just eat burgers and hotdogs at the beach. I mean, that's part of the fun of going to the beach, right?"

Willow agreed wholeheartedly, "Definitely! The beach is all about the water, the sun and the food...ooh and sandcastles!" she added excitedly.

Tara laughed without malice, "Yup yup...Thomas and Melody said they have plastic shovels and everything, so I asked them to bring them along so we could try and build one." She'd just taken a left-turn when realization dawned upon her, "Wait! You must be super good at building sandcastles!"

She looked over at Willow, who was nodding with a smug expression that was visible even though her eyes were covered by the dark glasses, "I don't want to brag, but yeah...I'm pretty good" she beamed. Tara noted that she stuck her chest out with pride, and quickly averted her gaze back to the road. She knew that if she stared any longer, she'd be in no position to drive straight.

"What's in the icebox then?" Willow asked a few moments later.

"Fresh fruit and drinks of the non-alcoholic variety" Tara stated.

"Smart choice" the redhead agreed.

Minutes later the girls were pulled up outside the dry-cleaning store owned by Sean's parents, and saw that the kids weren't there yet. Tara checked her watch and spoke to Willow, "We're 10 minutes early." The two women unbuckled themselves and climbed out of the car to wait outside the dry-cleaner's, and moments later were joined by Anya, Xander and Buffy. "Where's Cordy?" Tara asked Anya.

The shorter blonde was in the middle of shaking her head at Tara's question, when she stopped, "Speak of the devil." Tara turned to look at where her friend's eyes were staring, and saw Cordelia's red Honda CRV pulling in behind her own jeep. The car was carrying a surfboard on top, which Tara found strange since Cordelia didn't surf. "Why's she brought a surfboard?" Anya asked, obviously wondering the same thing.

The group watched as Cordelia stepped out of the driver's side, and Tara was surprised when the passenger door opened up as well. Her face split into a big smile when she saw the dark blonde man who stepped out of the car. "That's explains the surfboard" she said aloud.

The man joined Cordelia, and held her hand as they made their way to the small group. Their clasped hands did not go unnoticed by the rest, and Anya muttered, "So they finally hooked up, huh?"

Tara nodded without looking away, as Buffy asked in awe "Who is that?"

Her question was answered when the couple stopped before them, and the man grinned at Tara. "Hey little sis" he said, enveloping his sibling in a bear hug. When they pulled back, he asked "Surprised?"

Tara answered with a straight face, "That you and Cordy hooked up? No. That you're here? Yes."

"True that" Anya agreed, and was rewarded with a kiss on the cheek from Donny. "I mean, you two have been pining after each other for ever now!"

"So you're ok with this?" Cordelia asked Tara, obviously asking for her friend's approval.

Tara responded with a "Uh, duh!", and that was the end of that.

"Willow, hi!" Donny smiled, and leaned down to give her a kiss on the cheek too. "How are you?" he asked.

"Great" she smiled back, "You?"

"Lucky" he winked and gestured towards Cordelia.

Buffy loudly cleared her throat, catching Tara's attention. "Before my brother accuses me of having no manners" she grinned, "Buffy and Xander, meet Donny."

The seven of them were standing around making small talk when Willow tapped Tara's arm, and nodded her head to the right. Tara followed her gaze to see the kids walking up to them. "Hey guys" Tara smiled, and received happy "hey's" in return. The kids already knew Willow, Donny, Anya and Cordelia and exchanged greetings with the four before Tara introduced them to the other two. "Guys, meet Buffy and Xander". Looking at the two newcomers, she pointed out, "Sean, Sid, Claire, Thomas, Mike, Annie and Melody." Once introductions were done, she asked "So, we ready to go?"

She was answered with nods from her friends and excited squeals from the kids. The elder's decided who would go where, and minutes later Tara and Willow were heading back to the jeep with Claire and Annie for company. "Who wants to sit in the front with Tara?" Willow asked, and didn't look surprised when both girls volunteered. "Ok, tell you what" Willow told them, "how about Annie can sit in front on the way, and Claire can sit in the front on the way back?"

Tara was watching the redhead's interaction with the two girls, and found herself smiling at the sight. Even though they hadn't discussed it, she knew that Willow was doing the smart thing by making sure one of them sat at the back of the jeep, and was touched by Willow's thoughtfulness. Tara buckled Annie into the passenger seat as Willow and Claire climbed into the back, and then crossed over to the driver's seat. She turned on the radio and kept her eyes on her friend's cars. Once she saw that all the passengers were in their respective cars, she turned the key in the ignition and smiled at Annie, "Here we go!"

"Wheeeee!" Claire exclaimed from the back as the car began making its way to the beach.

Most of the drive was spent with Tara and Willow asking the girls about school, and being treated to random stories from the world of elementary school. Tara's favourite was Annie talking about a boy from her class for a good ten minutes. 'I wonder if she realizes she has a crush...' the blonde wondered as she drove, and thought it was so appropriate that Annie told her story as Taylor Swift's 'Fifteen' played in the background. 'Life is ironic like that' she mused.

The three cars were waiting at a set of traffic lights when Willow remarked, "It's a gorgeous day."

"Mmm hmm" Tara agreed, looking up at the clear blue sky. There was a good breeze in the air, making sure it wasn't too hot. "The perfect beach day" she stated as the lights changed to green and she moved along.

It wasn't long after that that they pulled onto the road that informed them that the next stop was the beach. Annie and Claire got even more excited, and it was contagions, since Tara and Willow found themselves smiling along with the two girls. Minutes later the jeep pulled into an empty spot in the parking lot, which was at least half-full by then. The four got out and stood by the car, and were soon joined by the passengers of the other two cars with their belongings.

Tara called out to the kids, and had them gather around her, "Ok, the rules for today are the same as always. One, no one goes to the bathroom or anywhere else without one of us grown-up's with them", she indicated her friends. "Two, you stay around us and each other, and don't wander away from the group. Three, do NOT talk to strangers, go anywhere with them, or eat anything they offer. And four, no one goes into the water without one of us grown-up's with them. Got it?"

Once she had affirmative nods from all the kids, she looked at her friends and smiled. She realized that they'd stood quietly through Tara's talk with the kids, so as not to undermine her authority in front of them, and was grateful for that. "Ready to hit the beach, guys?"

"Lead the way" Xander grinned, and the group made its way to the sand. Tara noted that even though Willow was walking close by her side, she hadn't linked their arms like she had before they'd fetched the kids. 'Maybe she thinks I'd be uncomfortable doing that in front of the kids? Or Donny?' she pondered. Tara watched the redhead out of the corner of her eye, and when she noticed that Willow was doing the same, she figured that Willow didn't always have to be the one taking the initiative. Swapping her gym bag to her right shoulder, Tara stepped to her left and linked her left arm with Willow's right one. The blonde knew she'd done the right thing when she received a shy but definitely happy smile from the redhead. 'I need to remember to have a talk with Donny later' she reflected, and was surprised that the idea didn't scare her in the slightest.

Tara stepped off the concrete of the parking lot and felt her flip-flops sink into the softness of sand. She felt Willow turn to her and ask, "Close to a lifeguard station?" Tara smiled and nodded, appreciating how in-tune the redhead was with the way she herself thought. Taking another chance, she allowed herself to openly keep glancing at the way the redhead's hair blew in the sea breeze the closer they got to the shoreline. She knew Willow was aware of her attention because even though the redhead's attention was focused straight ahead, she had a smile playing on her lips. When she finally stopped and muttered a low "You might wanna concentrate on picking a good spot too", Tara's heart did a happy jig.

She did stop her feet and look out at the beach though. "There?" she asked Willow, pointing to a less populated spot less than 10 meters from a lifeguard station.

"Looks good" Willow nodded, and both women made their way to the spot with the rest of their group coming up behind them and the kids. When they made it to the spot, Tara dropped her beach bag down and very grudgingly let go of her hold on the redhead's arm. She noticed Willow drop her own beach bag down and copy Tara when the blonde pulled a big green beach blanket out of her bag.

"I figured we might need it" Willow shrugged, unfolding the multicoloured blanket and laying it alongside Tara's.

"Did you bring yours too?" Tara asked Cordelia, who nodded and pulled a big pink blanket out of her bag, and proceeded to lay it alongside the other two.

"Wow" Anya marveled, looking down. "That's a lot of blanket."

Tara laughed, "We're a lot of people. Hey Xander?" she asked, catching his attention, "could you please put the icebox down on that corner, to hold it down?" Xander nodded and did as asked. The other's seemed to get the idea, and placed their own bags on the corners of the three blankets, to make sure they stayed in place.

"Everyone bring towels?" Tara asked. Six of the children nodded but Thomas' eyes went wide, "I forgot" he mumbled sadly, and Tara's heart nearly broke at the sorrow on his face. "Does this mean I can't swim?" he asked, looking dejected.

"No honey" she smiled kindly, and reached into her bag to pull out a big beach towel, which she held out to him. "Here, I carried extra just in case".

Thomas grabbed the towel and then wrapped his arms around Tara, "You're the best!"

She returned his gesture, and Willow whispered in her ear when she straightened, "You really are." Tara felt a shiver run down her spine when she felt the redhead's warm breath on her ear, and was sure she could see a wicked smile play on Willow's lips as she pulled away. She mock-glared at the redhead even as she felt a wave of arousal sweep through her body, and tried to clear her head as she looked at her friends, "Any grown-up's need a towel?"

Everyone had remembered to carry theirs, so Tara only pulled one out for herself. She asked the kids to lay their towels down where they wanted to, and deliberately lay her own down next to Willow's. Once that was all done, she called the kids together again and asked, "Alright, who needs to go to the changing rooms?"

Melody and Sean were the only two to raise their hands. "Ok then, let's go" Tara stated, and was turning to leave when Cordelia stopped her. "Where's your stuff Tare?"

"I'm already wearing my swimmers" Tara answered.

"Well" the brunette replied, "I need to change into mine, so how about I go with them instead?"

"Alright" Tara nodded, and watched as Cordelia grabbed her stuff and walked away with the children. Turning back to the others, she said "Swim time!"

The kids excitedly started to take their clothes off, revealing varying swim wear underneath. The adults were following suit, with Xander and Donny merely having to take their shirts off. Tara, Anya and Buffy had spent too much time in shared changing rooms to be shy about stripping in the middle of a beach, but Tara noticed that Willow was a completely different story. The redhead had only kicked off her Nike's and was standing there looking around nervously, her fingers still fidgeting at the bottom of her tank top. Tara kept her eyes fixed on the redhead as she herself peeled off her wife-beater and white shorts.

She was stuffing her discarded clothes into her beach bag when Willow seemed to find the strength to pull off her tank top. Tara froze in the middle of zipping her bag up again, and watched as the top came off inch by inch to reveal the bandeau bikini top Tara had guessed she was wearing underneath. When the top was completely off, Willow looked over at Tara, and the blonde knew that she'd been caught staring.

It looked like Willow was going to avert her gaze, but seemed to change her mind at the last minute, and kept her green eyes locked with Tara's blues while she undid the button of her denim shorts. Tara knew that she should probably look away, but could only just manage a gulp as Willow seemed to grow in confidence, and pulled the zipper of her shorts down. Finally, she pulled the shorts down and gingerly stepped out of them.

Despite knowing that Willow was watching, or maybe because of it, Tara slowly allowed her eyes to travel down the redhead's body, noting that the classic bikini bottom's matched the top in pattern. Tara was sure Willow thought she was some kind of pervert by now, but when she looked back up she saw that Willow was watching her with a smile that could only be described as... 'Sexy' she thought.

Tara would have continued staring if Mike hadn't asked her if it was time to go in the water yet. "In a minute sweetie...we're just waiting for Mel and Sean to get back, ok?" She turned her head to look back at Willow, and almost jumped in fright when she realized the redhead was right beside her. "Oh God!" she exclaimed, holding her hand against her chest, "you scared me!"

"Sorry" Willow said, not looking apologetic in the slightest. She held out a bottle of sun block to Tara, "Do my back?"

Tara felt her eyes go wide, and was sure she looked pretty comical as she nodded her head dumbly. Taking the offered bottle, she waited for Willow to sit down in front of her, before getting down on her knees and squirting some of the cream onto her palm. 'Try not to grope her' she reminded herself as her palms made contact with Willow's shoulder blades. 'Easier said than done...' she thought, massaging the lotion evenly into Willow's skin in what she hoped was a relaxing motion. Willow tilted her head to the side as Tara moved her hands up to her shoulders, giving Tara her first real look at the expanse of pale skin. 'Don't drool' she chastised herself, making sure to swallow at regular intervals. 'It would be so easy to bend down and taste her -'

Her thought process was broken when Annie came up to her. "Tara, could you do that for me next?"

Tara attempted to direct what she hoped resembled a smile in the child's direction, "Sure sweetie...just let me finish with Willow ok?"

Annie nodded, but opted to wait right there for her turn. As much as Tara didn't want to, she quickened her movements, and after making sure Willow's shoulder area was well protected from the sun, she crouched further down on her knees and rubbed lotion into the area under the back strap of Willow's bikini. "Done" she said around a minute later.

Tara could swear that Willow's eyes seemed a darker shade of green when she turned around to face her, " have really nice hands" she said in a low voice. The blonde could only nod dumbly as Willow stood up and Annie took her place. The little girl insisted on returning Tara's gesture, so minute's later Tara was also the proud owner of a UV rays protected back. Standing up, she thanked Annie, and looked around to see that Cordelia had returned with Melody and Sean as well.

"Ok, who wants to get wet?" Donny asked the excited brood.

'I'm already there' Tara thought wryly, shooting a look in Willow's direction and feeling thrilled when she noticed the redhead's eyes on her.

Anya had been watching the interaction between her best friend and Willow, and could not understand why they were still dancing around one another. She absent-mindedly noticed a shadow fall over her, but didn't really pay any heed to it till it spoke, "Watcha looking at hun?"

Anya looked up at her boyfriend, "Nothing...just lost in my own world" she lied.

Xander nodded and looked in the direction she'd been staring in. When he noticed that her gaze had been fixed upon Willow and Tara, he turned back to his girlfriend with a curious look on his face, "You sure?"

Anya nodded, but Xander still didn't look like he bought it as he sat down next to her. "Ok" he said, his tone saying the opposite.

They watched Willow, Tara, Cordelia, Buffy and Donny walk the kids out to the water, but both were aware that there was an awkward silence between them. It finally got too much for Anya, "You don't believe me, do you?"

Xander picked up on her defensive tone, "No, no...that's not what I'm saying at all." Anya searched his eyes, and looked away dissatisfied. Moments later, "Is there something not to believe?"

Anya chose not to answer that question, and after a few more moments of silence asked "Is there something you want to tell me?"

Xander studied his girlfriend's profile, "Is there something you want to tell me?"

Anya sighed, realizing that this conversation wasn't going anywhere. "Okkkk..." she said thoughtfully, "is there something you want to tell me about anyone here?"

"Maybe" Xander shrugged noncommittally. "Anything you want to share, about maybe, two people here?"

Anya turned and searched his face for a few moments, before squealing "Oh my God! How long have you known?" Xander still looked a bit suspicious, so Anya threw in a "...about Willow and..."

Now it was Xander's turn to gasp, "You do know! How long?"

"A couple of weeks" Anya answered excitedly.

"Me too" Xander grinned, animatedly bobbing his head.

Anya leaned in to kiss him happily, and the couple moved closer together as they turned their attention back to the water. They watched in more comfortable silence as Willow and Tara splashed around with the kids. "Who do you think will make the first real move?" Anya asked him, her head resting on his chest.

"Your guess is as good as mine, Ahn" Xander replied, wondering the same thing.

Tara lay on her towel, watching Willow build a sandcastle with the kids as the sun started its descent. The redhead had delegated specific tasks to all of them in an obvious attempt to make them all feel involved and important, but it was too soon to see what they were actually trying to build. One thing was clear in Tara's mind though - Willow looked adorable with the blue plastic shovel in her hand.

As if sensing Tara's eyes on her, Willow looked up in the blonde's direction. The two women locked gazes and held them as their faces broke into matching smiles, before Willow looked down and continued with the task at hand. Tara allowed her mind to wander back to the events of the day so far, and felt a tingle of pure joy pass through her body when she thought about how the redhead made excuses to touch her throughout the day. At the very least, every fifteen minutes Tara found her arm substituting as a resting place for Willow's hand. Her favourite memory was from when they'd made their way out of the water and walked to the showers. Tara had rinsed her body and opened her eyes to see an already showered Willow watching her. 'She was definitely checking me out' Tara acknowledged.

The sandcastle had begun to take shape, and Tara realized that it looked like one of those old English manors, with towers and everything. The orange-tinged sky provided a beautiful backdrop to the scene before her eyes, so the blonde grabbed the camera beside her and sat up to take a few pictures of the group at work.

"The waters started to get chilly now" Buffy announced as she and Zak came back hand in hand from a swim.

Tara nodded, "I think we'll be ready to leave as soon as they're done with their little construction enterprise". She smiled and indicated where Willow was working with the kids, before asking, "Where's Donny?"

"Catching the last few waves" Zak replied, settling down on a towel. "He said he'd be out in a little while."

Tara nodded again, and turned her attention back to Willow. The redhead looked as excited as the kids as the sandcastle continued to come together, and Tara found herself smiling fondly at the sight. She lay there, feeling absolutely content in the moment, but there was a niggling thought at the back of her mind reminding her that things couldn't continue the way they were. It was obvious that she and Willow shared a mutual admiration that went beyond platonic, and even though Tara felt she'd been acting braver that she ever believed she could, she knew there was a bigger step that needed to be taken.

The sun was almost gone by the time the sandcastle was complete, but Tara used the handy flash option on her digital camera to get lots of shots of the creation and its team of architects. She'd just placed the gizmo back into its pouch when Cordelia reminded her, "We better get going Tare...or we'll miss dinner."

Tara nodded, and asked the kids to get changed. Cordelia headed back to the changing rooms with Sean and Melody, while everyone else pulled their clothes back on and started to pack up. Tara was folding her blanket when a dressed Willow walked up beside her, "Big dinner plans?" she asked.

"Oh, I didn't tell you, did I?" Tara asked, her doubts confirmed at the quizzical look on Willow's face. "Our handball camp starts tomorrow right?" When the redhead nodded, she continued, "Well, as a rule, all the players have to stay together wherever the handball association decides to put us up during camps and tournament. So tonight, we have to check into the Sunnydale Plaza before 8:30."

"Oh" Willow said, nodding thoughtfully. " live in Sunnydale" she said.

"I know" Tara agreed, putting the folded blanket into her bag and zipping it up, "but we do have to get to know the rest of the squad, right?"

"I guess" Willow granted, and then added in a slightly hesitating tone, "I was going to ask if you wanted to do dinner with me tonight..."

"Hey" Tara said, tilting the dejected looking redhead's chin up with the tip of her forefinger, and forcing her to meet her gaze "I live in Sunnydale, remember?" She was rewarded with a small smile from Willow, so added, "There's lots of time for dinner. And maybe lunches too?"

Willow seemed to cheer up at that, and smiled wider, "Lunches sounds good."

Cordelia returned with Melody and Sean, and after a quick headcount and scan of the area for belongings the group made its way back to the cars. Tara was about to climb into the driver's seat of her jeep when she stopped and looked at Willow, "Do you know how to drive stick?"

Willow quirked her eye at the question, but answered, "Well...I was taught in a manual car..."

"Wanna drive?" Tara offered.

"Hmm, I think I'll pass, with the kids and all. But how about we practice?"

Tara nodded, and climbed into the car. Willow hopped into the back, with Annie for company this time. Tara started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. "Are we dropping the kids to their houses?" Willow asked?

Tara shook her head, "Nope. Sean's parents will be at their store, and said they'd make sure all the kids get home safe."

Willow asked Annie if she'd had fun at the beach, and smiled when the kid nodded happily. "I wish we could have taken the sandcastle home though" she said sadly.

"Well, that isn't possible sweetie" Willow said gently, "but I'll tell you what...I promise we'll build a sandcastle every time we go to the beach, ok?" Annie cheered up at that, and the rest of the drive was filled by the two girls' chatter about the fun they'd had that day.

Ever since Tara could remember she'd had a theory that drives back went by faster, and this day seemed no different than the rest. Before she knew it, all three cars were parked outside the dry-cleaner's, and the kid's were saying their thank you's to the gang. Sean's parents reassured Tara that they would get all the kids home safe, so the gang said their goodbye's and walked back to the cars.

"Ok...I'll drop Willow home...and Ahn, you come with me since your stuffs already at my place. Cordy, we'll see you straight at the hotel?" Tara glanced at her watch, "It's already 7:45, so it's going to be very touch and go."

"I have a better idea" Willow spoke up, "I'll go with Xander, Buffy and Zak, and you and Anya can head back to your place."

"But-" Tara started to protest, but was cut off by the redhead, "At least two of you will be on time for sure Tare."

Tara wanted to object again, but saw the sense in Willow's words. "Fine" she relented.

"Ok then" Anya announced, "I'll just bring the icebox from Xander's car then." She walked away with her boyfriend, as Cordelia said, "I'm going to rush too." She gave Willow a quick hug bye as Donny said his goodbye's to his sister, and with a promise to be on time, the brunette and her new boyfriend were gone. That left Buffy and Zak, who was also due at the dinner later that night. "Umm, I'm just going to go wait for you in Xander's car, ok?" Willow could only nod as Buffy dragged her boyfriend along with her.

The two women found themselves standing alone, and Tara didn't have to be a genius to realize what had just happened. "Our friends are just something else, huh?" she grinned.

Willow nodded her head in agreement, and opened her arms to accept the hug Tara was leaning in to give her. They held on for long moments before pulling back, their arms still lightly wrapped around one another. Tara couldn't remember a time when she'd wanted to kiss Willow more, but as tempted as she was, she didn't want it to be here, like this. Averting her gaze from Willow's lips, she breathed softly, "Thanks for coming Will."

The redhead gently smiled, "Thanks for inviting me."

They stood there, smiling at one another until Tara was aware of Anya's voice that could be heard even as she walked up to them. The blonde almost laughed out loud at how obviously her friend was trying to alert them of her arrival, but opted to lean in to hug Willow one more time before halfheartedly pulling away. This time, she held onto Willow's hand for a few extra seconds, before releasing it with a squeeze. "Dinners and lunches, remember?"

Willow's only response was to grin, and then add almost as an afterthought, "Good luck for tomorrow!"

Tara climbed into the driver's seat of her car, and buckled herself in. Taking one last look at her redheaded Goddess, she winked and drove away.

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