Willow was buried in a mass of documents, printouts and prospectuses; she had been screening them for a whole day. She was tired, and rubbed her fingers wearily across the bridge of her nose.
"I'm impressed." Patrick said. "You didn't go out to get any client. You bagged the ex-mayor of Sunnydale. Some say he's got his sight on following in the footsteps of Guiliani and Bloomberg."
"I haven't checked out all the paperwork yet." She didn't want to go into a discussion of Richard Wilkins' political ambitions and focused on the task at hand instead. "I'll forward the pack to you when I've finished."
"No matter, send it to me now," Patrick directed.
"But the due diligence isn't complete. He's opening an account in his own name and that puts him immediately in with the high risk group." She rummaged in the pile marked 'received' and pulled out a random document. "See here, he's listed the companies he own, but some of them don't have addresses or he hasn't listed the co-owners. Plus being an ex-politician he's a Sensitive Person, that's another level of clearance needed."
"But most of it checks out?"
"Yes, he gave me the information really quickly. Almost too quickly."
He laughed. "Now you're suspicious because he was efficient?"
"I'm not being difficult for the sake of being difficult. I haven't had an individual client before, and there's something about him that makes me want to be extra careful."
"Are there any red flags?"
"Well, the addresses for starters."
"Highlight them and I'll review, but let me have the pack," he glanced at the stack on her desk, "first thing tomorrow."
"I've set up a meeting at his office tomorrow afternoon to go over the outstanding issues, how about I go to that one first then give you the pack with my findings?"
"Can't wait. there's an executive committee meeting at nine. I want to announce that we are the first group to successfully venture into this cross selling initiative. Another feather in our, and your, cap."
He tapped on her papers. "I'll take full responsibility, get me the documentation and I'll sign off, okay?"
Willow dutifully left the new account documentation on Patrick's desk before going home, but she still kept the appointment with Richard Wilkins. She wasn't surprised that he brought a team of getters and fetchers; three of them sat opposite her along one side of an oval conference table, as if she being interviewed or interrogated. If they thought she would be intimidated, they had obviously underestimated her. She did raise one eyebrow slightly when Tara walked in with Wilkins. Their eyes locked briefly and Tara looked as if she was about to sit on Willow's side when one of her colleagues indicated the empty seat next to her boss.
Willow wasn't bothered and proceeded to start the discussions.
"It's just a formality, Mr Wilkins, I apologize for the amount of material I am requesting. Under the Patriot Act the Bank has certain obligations to fulfill when opening new client accounts," she explained.
"Why do you want to know how often Mr Wilkins will deposit funds? And whether or not he has signatory rights over other custodial accounts? And accounts in other countries? Seems to me this infringes on his First Amendment rights." A thin, twitchy man who had been introduced as Alan Finch jumped right into attack mode. More like unsubstantiated posturing as far as Willow was concerned. She laughed inwardly. First Amendment rights? The man's scare tactics didn't work on her. She looked over at Tara and felt a rush of warmth at Tara's imperceptible eye-roll.
"As I said, Mr Finch, this is standard procedure. It may seem arduous at first, but we only need to do this once. It will ensure transactions are done smoothly once the account is set up, and a long and fruitful relationship between the parties."
"I think Willow is being a responsible citizen. This shows to me the Bank is serious about cooperating with the authorities to fight terrorism and problems like money laundering," Tara interjected.
Alan Finch turned to Tara with an exasperated expression. "Yes but some of these questions are not related to this account specifically. What will she ask for next? His shoe size?"
He's trying to make her look like she's the one causing trouble.
"Now, now. You both make good points," Wilkins placed one arm over the back of Tara's chair in a subtle message of endorsement. "Willow is just doing her job, right Willow?" At Willow's nod he continued. "Let's get as much as we can, we want to be patriots don't we?"
Alan Finch looked like he wanted to protest but swallowed whatever words he was about to utter.
"There is some information we simply don't have," a third assistant, Lilah Morgan from the legal department, spoke up for the first time.
A flicker of irritation crossed Wilkins' normally chipper features. "Well, gather what you have. Tara will coordinate and consolidate for Willow," he instructed. "Let's get this done today."
It was obvious the meeting had come to a close and the team followed Wilkins out of the conference room like ducklings following a mother duck. Willow stifled a snigger at the image.
"Mother hen or piped piper?" Tara had made her way to Willow's side, ostensibly to help her pack up her documents.
Willow grinned. They were obviously thinking of the same thing. "Ducklings. Does it happen a lot?"
"Mr Wilkins likes to include his advisors and staff in meetings so they are fully in the loop," Tara deadpanned.
"But do they have to be so, so droid army like?" Willow scowled.
"You mean, follow the leader?"
"It's always been like this."
"Huh," Willow pondered, then snapped her briefcase shut with a shrug. "Have dinner with me?"
She expected a rejection, or at least needing to build a case or turn on the charm.
"Okay," Tara agreed shyly.
If happiness could be defined, it was that pinpoint moment within the four walls of a nameless conference room when two lost hearts took another tentative step closer to finding what they thought had gone forever.
By the time they came out of the restaurant it was later than they expected. Time had simply flew by as they enjoyed the company and the conversation. As if by unspoken consent, they didn't speak of their past and only of interests and hobbies: the sort of 'getting to know you' conversation that happened on dates after exchanging family history. It was of course not a date, they had not wanted to define the nature of this dinner. There was too much history, too many complications, too much hurt. For a few glorious hours, it was like what they could have been, if only.
"I told you we should have shared the dessert. I'm about to explode," Willow groaned as she walked out into the cold November air. "When did it start snowing?"
"No matter how long I've lived here, I never get used to it," Tara said as she wrapped her scarf tighter around her head and put on her gloves quickly. She hooked her arm around Willow's in an impulsive act of familiarity. Willow stiffened for a passing second, but quickly moved closer, if only because huddling together kept out some of the cold.
There were no taxis in sight so they strolled along the street; it was better than standing still and getting buffeted by the snow.
"What was it like?" Willow's question, contrary to the night's animated talk, was almost inaudible.
And ambiguous, though Tara got it. It was her turn to be circumspect. To buy some time, she led Willow in the direction of her apartment a few blocks away. They walked slowly, each deep in their own thoughts.
"Tough. Soul-destroyingly tough. Or as Mr Wilkins would say, character-building tough," Tara finally said with a wry chuckle, a block and a half later. She supposed the shop windows in between were full of pretty seasonal decorations, but her mind was too occupied to notice.
"I can see why you did it," Willow said quietly. "Yeah, I gave you flak, but that was me only thinking how pissed off I was that you left ... me. I never thought about it from your point of view."
"You've done so well for yourself. Wilkins, he trusts you, and I get a sense that he doesn't give out trust easily. You're pretty well regarded in his organization, aren't you? I had assumed that you only worked on the floor but you're much more than that, right?"
"I worked my way up. I think it helped that he and I both knew that I had nowhere to go, no one to turn to, which meant that I was completely loyal to him. At first it was out of necessity, but along the way I stopped thinking about it."
"And are you? Loyal to him?"
"I owe him a huge debt for taking me away from a hopeless Sunnydale future, I don't know if I'll ever be able to repay that."
Willow snorted. "And he'll do everything not to make you forget, to feed on your guilt. He's a cunning old fox; I know he's your boss and all, but be careful of him. He has more money than I estimated, even with aggressive investments. I need to look very carefully at his source of funds."
"Is that why you've been pushing for all those extra information?"
"Partly. There are extra layers of approvals for the type of account he is opening. But yes, he triggers all sorts of alarm bells in me, though I can't put my finger on exactly why. Were you surprised? That he put you in charge, so to speak?"
"Not as surprised as Alan. Did you see the look on his face?"
"Yes, I also saw the smirk on Ms Morgan's. Is there much politics?"
"What's the secret of your success, Tara? You don't strike me as a player."
"Ah, 'it's complicated' -- that always sounds so ominous."
"Everything personal in my life has been complicated, I don't know why."
They reached Tara's apartment building at that moment and thoughts turned personal. There was no denying the easy affinity they felt tonight, and the pull of the attraction that had always simmered between them. Their arms had intertwined during the short walk from the restaurant and gloved hands had slipped together without either realizing it. Despite the thick layers of sheepskin and leather, their fingers tingled with a soft warmth of a deeply buried sensation that had steadily coursed through their beings all night.
"D-d-do you want to come in? Get yourself warmed up," Tara didn't answer Willow's question directly, but the invitation was clear.
Willow looked at Tara for so long that Tara thought she'd shiver, or melt, under that searching gaze. "I want to," she murmured.
"But?" Tara took half a step closer so they were almost touching. They were still holding hands.
"I don't know if I'll be able to leave, tonight," Willow's eyes were flushed with a fire that would have been staggering if the same weren't reflected in Tara's.
Tara could have questioned, or reasoned, or promised; but why were they talking about it? She pulled them closer and, subconsciously noting that Willow hadn't flinched, captured Willow's lips in hers. There was a small needy sound, then carefully built barriers folded and drifted away with the snowflakes and they couldn't stop kissing, and touching, and finding.