Tara lay on her side, her head propped up by one arm as her eyes roamed over the naked expanse of Willow's back. As tempting as it was to run her fingertips over the smooth surface, she refrained, unwilling to disturb the woman's much needed rest. Instead she contented herself with studying the sleeping redhead, whose face seemed almost as expressive in slumber as when awake. When the blonde first heard agitated mumblings coming from her bedmate, she thought Willow was having nightmares stemming from what they had discovered earlier, until she caught the phrase "don't warn the tadpoles." Tara surmised that it was merely some mundane childhood anxiety reasserting itself, and so she simply watched over Willow, etching every expression into her memory as she fought off her body's own urge for sleep. Impulsively she got out of the bed, peeled off her tank top and pajama pants, and crawled back in, scooting as close to the redhead as she dared without waking her.
Earlier that day:
Willow mumbled a sleepy good morning to Dawn and Oz as she passed through the dining room on her way to kitchen. Halfway down the stairs she had smelled coffee, and after a restless night's sleep, she was in dire need of caffeine. As she pushed open the swinging doors, she spied Tara at the enormous stove, flipping pancakes while Cordelia and Anya hovered on either side of her. Willow made a beeline for the giant coffee urn, filling up a mug and breathing in the hearty aroma before casually shuffling over to the other women. Tara turned and gave her a half smile as she approached.
"Good morning, sleepyhead."
"Hey!" Willow pouted in mock indignation. "I'm not the last one up... am I?"
"No, Xander hasn't made an appearance yet either. I would have waited on breakfast, but SOME people were getting anxious," Tara explained, looking pointedly at Anya.
"Well, SOME people are hungry... and didn't sleep half the day away," Anya countered, literally pointing at Willow.
"Anya, it's only 8:30, and we did all have a long day - "
"How about we have a little less talking and a lot more cooking," Cordelia suddenly interjected over Tara.
"HEY!" Willow yelled, startling herself as much as the haughty brunette. "Tara doesn't work here, so why don't you back off or make your own damn breakfast!"
"Excuse me, butch," Cordelia mocked the furiously blushing redhead. "Come on Anya, let's go wait in the dining room before Ellen here challenges me to a duel."
Willow cringed as she watched the retreating figures leave the room. She turned to see Tara gazing back a her quizzically.
"Sorry about that. I don't usually shout at people, I just... well, she didn't have to treat you like some kind of servant," she finished with a defiant nod.
"I appreciate your concern," Tara replied seriously. "The Cordelia Chases of the world are used to people behaving a certain way around them, but maybe she's learned her lesson." Tara paused before adding in a whisper, "I think you scared her."
Willow looked horrified at the thought, but as a huge grin formed on Tara's face, she rolled her eyes and laughed.
"I guess I should apologize to her. Actually, Tara, I owe you one too," the redhead shyly spoke, her eyes dropping to the floor. "Last night... I didn't mean what I said... about not being like... I think I may have done someth - "
Willow abruptly cut herself short as Faith and Riley noisily entered the room from the servants' wing. Tara quickly explained to Willow that they'd decided to try to break into the locked room at the end of the hall.
"We got in, but he wasn't there," Riley stated. "The closet and dresser drawers were full, though, so if he cleared out, he must not have taken anything with him."
Tara finished loading up two platters with neatly stacked pancakes, which Riley quickly stepped forward to carry for her. As the four filed out of the kitchen, Tara paused to squeeze Willow's hand.
"We'll talk more later, okay?"
Willow looked around at the seven other guests seated at the table, mentally ticking off faces and names as she tried to figure who was absent.
"At the beach, if you can believe that. I guess she still thinks she's on vacation," Riley said with a contemptuous snort.
"She left a note," Oz added.
Willow looked at the young man, expecting him to continue, but he had apparently said his fill. After he finished eating, Oz offered to rouse Xander so that the group could begin checking out the rest of the island.
"He's not there," he told the others as he came downstairs. "Doesn't look like he slept in his bed last night, either."
"He probably passed out on the couch," Anya surmised.
"Maybe he went out with Buffy this morning?" Dawn speculated.
"Well, I guess it's just the eight of us, so here's what I suggest" Riley spoke up, clearly stepping into the role of leader. "Someone should stay here, while the rest of us split up into pairs and search different segments of the island. One group can head back toward the dock the way we came, then skirt back up along the western ridge. Another can head southeast from the house, and the third can go north out the back. Any questions?"
"Who's going to stay here?" Dawn asked tentatively, looking around the imposing room and visibly shivering.
"I figured you would," Riley stated, observing the teenager as though the thought of her conducting a manhunt was ridiculous. His manner softened somewhat as he took in her apprehensive expression. "But if you want, maybe someone else can stay too."
"I will," Cordelia quickly offered. "What? I didn't bring any hiking shoes."
As soon as everyone had dressed appropriately and arranged to meet back at the house by 2 pm, they set out. Riley and Anya set off across the lawn towards the southeast, Willow and Tara walked down the slope to the west, while Faith and Oz passed a rack of bicycles on their way to the back of the house.
"I think you disappointed someone," Tara stated, looking back over her shoulder at the retreating forms of Faith and Oz. Willow followed her gaze with a frown.
"Uh-huh. You didn't see his expression when you told him you were with me?"
"Oh please, he is so not my type," Willow scoffed, grinning at the blonde as she added, "but then, you already figured that out, didn't you?"
"I had a hunch," Tara conceded, ducking her head shyly. "That's not what you wanted to talk to me about though, is it?"
"No, it's not," Willow admitted, briefly looking back at the house as they reached the footpath and the entrance to the woods. "I looked at my card, and I think I may have done something... something that made that man - Christopher Hewitt? - kill himself."
Tara made no verbal response, assuming none was necessary, but she squeezed Willow's hand in silent encouragement for her to continue. She loosened her grip slightly, but the redhead firmly held on as she continued.
"I was kind of a hacker in college, and I got involved with this group of... well, they called themselves ‘Social Avengers for Truth.' We would hack these big corporations, find out who was hiding illegal profits, screwing over their shareholders, using child labor... that kind of thing... and then we'd sort of... leak it to the press. It seemed like a good thing at the time, though I got involved for the technical challenge as much as anything. It even led to my career. Once my name got out, some of the very companies I hacked started offering me huge sums of money to protect their systems... so long as I ceased and desisted in any unlawful activities, of course."
Willow paused to gauge Tara's reaction, but the blonde's face was an unreadable mask.
"According to the card I got, Hewitt was the head of research and development for a pharmaceutical company. We discovered they were taking in loads of money from the government and private sector, but most of it was NOT going into research. If I remember correctly, Hewitt and the rest of the execs were all living pretty large - and I mean LARGE - while one of their drugs was being rushed through to market before it was ready. It turns out several people using the drug had died, but the company wasn't initially held responsible. That changed when we released our information and the Feds started investigating. Hewitt was one of the first ones brought up on charges, but he killed himself before..."
Willow's voice broke off as she contemplated the consequences of her actions. Tara dropped her hand and grabbed the redhead by the shoulders, dipping her head to catch Willow's eyes.
"Willow... it wasn't your fault. Yeah, so maybe it was mildly illegal computer trespassing or something... but you didn't force that man to steal from people, and you didn't kill him."
Tara emphasized the last few words, cupping the redhead's quivering chin as Willow tried to bow her head again. Willow exhaled sharply, her tense body seemingly deflating as she spontaneously wrapped her arms around the blonde in a tight hug.
"Thank you," she rasped, burying her head in Tara's shoulder. After a moment they parted self-consciously and continued toward the dock, stealing sideways glances at each other all the way. Upon reaching the pier they found nothing, and retraced their steps to where the footpath and bike path intersected. They walked slowly, conversing some, pausing every now and then to call out for Giles, and enjoying the beautiful day despite their strange circumstances. Before they began to ascend the hill, they reached another fork in the path. Willow began to continue forward until Tara reached out and stopped her.
"Tara? What's wrong?"
"What's that on the ground?"
Willow walked over to where Tara had pointed and picked up a hand-painted wooden slab that had seemingly fallen off of a tree.
"Danger... steep cliff," she read aloud, leaning the sign against the nearest tree.
Tara frowned as she looked to the left of the path, where the wall of trees was breached by a twenty-foot wide empty span. The blonde looked down at the dirt and followed the almost imperceptible indent that led from the bike path to the edge of the cliff.
"Tara?! What are you doing?!" Willow frantically asked.
"It's okay... just wait there."
Willow held her breath as she watched the blonde walk carefully to the edge of the cliff, staying close to the trees and holding on with one hand as she leaned over. Tara stood perfectly still, only her rapid heartbeat betraying her calm exterior until she jumped back from the edge and dropped to her knees. Willow rushed over to the pale, shaky woman.
"Tara?! Tara, what is it?!"
The blonde's eyes were closed tightly and she repeatedly shook her head, unable to reply. Willow inched over to the edge and craned her neck over the side. She did not at first understand what it was she was looking at, but when it registered, her hand flew to her mouth. She threw herself away from the edge and doubled over as she heaved into the dirt.
"That... that was... that was..."
"Xander," Tara stated.