Willow walked up to Tara's door and moved to knock on it. She hesitated as her knuckles touched the door, her thoughts replaying the events of the past several hours. After she had told the others about her suspicions about Tara, they agreed that it would be a good idea for one of them to go to her and explain everything to her. Though Anya said that she was more than willing to do it, Willow had quickly interjected with a resounding rebuttal to that, saying that if anyone had the right to tell Tara about this, it was her.
Willow had come to that conclusion for a number of reasons. For starters, she knew that it would be better for Tara to hear this from her rather than Anya, since the blonde was anything but tactful when it came to sensitive situations like this. More importantly, however, was the fact that it had been quite some time since Willow knew the swimming competition had concluded, and even longer since Fred should have at least contacted them, so her safety swiftly became of paramount importance. However, they all agreed that talking to Tara was equally important, so it was decided that Anya would take the others to find Fred while Willow went to talk to Tara all by herself.
Willow was worried about Fred, but she was slightly more worried about having this conversation with Tara. Talking to her had always been something that made Willow feel pleasant, even when Tara gently admonished her over her bad grades and decisions in life. Never in the time Willow had known her had Tara's voice ever made her feel uncomfortable.
Willow knew that belief was about to be shaken to its very core, though how badly that was going to end up being was something that was in question. Willow had no doubt that the minute she became aware of the fact that her secret had come out, Tara would feel betrayed about the fact that the redhead had chosen to tell her secret to others. But she didn't know that Willow had done it for a good reason, one she might not understand, but a good reason nonetheless.
On the other hand, even when given that knowledge, Tara might not react to that bit of news as well as Willow hoped she would. On the contrary, Tara would most likely consider that news as a sign that she was being made fun of, the very thing she had hoped to avoid. One way or another, things were about to get very awkward between them.
Taking a deep breath, and realizing that the inevitable couldn't be put off any longer, she knocked on the door. It opened a few moments later, revealing the smiling form of Tara. "Hi, Willow."
"Hi, Tara," Willow said, her voice cracking a bit, no doubt due to the cold. "Can I...can I come in?"
"Of course," Tara replied, opening the door and allowing Willow to enter. Willow took off her coat and left it on the armrest of the stairs as she made her way up them into Tara's living room, the blonde moving into the kitchen. Willow smiled faintly as she watched Tara's retreating form. This was the ritual they had always gone through whenever they were here, Willow sitting down in Tara's living room as Tara made her girlfriend some tea and a small snack.
But as she sat down on one of the chairs, Willow knew that this time would be different. Immediately beginning to fidget, Willow knew that her nervousness was all too apparent, and she knew that Tara would immediately pick up on it, making any attempt to dance around the issue for as long as she could a useless endeavor.
Coming into the living room with a cup of tea, Tara noticed Willow fidgeting, and grew concerned. "Willow, what's wrong?"
Willow felt her stomach tighten, and decided that she should just get it over with before things got any worse. "Tara, I've done something horrible."
Tara's expression immediately softened into a look of compassion as she came over to kneel beside Willow. Gently bringing the redhead's head around, Tara looked into her emerald green eyes. "Whatever it is, Willow, I want you to know that you can feel comfortable talking to me about it. I'm sure that it isn't as bad as you think it is. If you had a good reason to do it, I'll understand why you felt you had to do it."
Willow let out a breath, Tara's declaration letting her know that, as far as talking to her about this was concerned, she wouldn't be upset. "I...I...I talked to somebody."
"What's so wrong about that?" Tara asked, clearly surprised that something like that would upset Willow this much.
Tara was still confused for a moment, but realization dawned on her face quickly as she realized that there was only one subject that Willow could be talking about that would make her this upset. Getting up as quickly as if she had been struck by a live wire, Tara made her way over to the window. "Willow, you promised me that you wouldn't tell anyone about that."
"I know," Willow said, getting up from the chair and moving to join Tara at the window. "But...but I had to do it. You said that you would understand why I had to do it if I had a good reason."
Tara turned to look at Willow, and the expression on the blonde's face shook Willow to the core. In one single look, Tara had managed to convey hurt, sadness, and most importantly of all, betrayal. Willow immediately grew sick at seeing her girlfriend look like this, knowing that there was perhaps no explanation in this world that could be good enough to justify what she had just done.
"Why?" Tara asked, her voice catching, as if she didn't want to say that. "What reason could you possibly have to tell somebody about my search for the Crystal?"
"What?" Willow asked, realizing then that Tara had misunderstood her about what it was that she had done. "No, Tara. I didn't tell anyone about that. I promised I would never tell anyone about that."
Tara looked away, the sight of Willow making her feel uncomfortable. Not only had she betrayed her trust, but now she was trying to say that she hadn't done it at all to begin with. Tara knew that she shouldn't have trusted Willow with her secret, even though she believed the redhead to be the most trustworthy person she knew. There were few people that Tara could trust with as important a secret as her search for the Crystal was, but Willow had been one of them. Now she had proven herself to be no different than anyone else. It made her sick.
"Please, Tara," Willow continued. "I never told anyone about your search for the Crystal. I just...I just..."
"What?" Tara snapped, turning back to look at Willow. "What did you do?"
"I just told them who I thought you were!" Willow shouted.
Taken aback slightly, Tara took a moment to compose herself before replying. "What...What do you mean?"
"I...I..," Willow stammered. "When you told me about your search for the Crystal, you said that you had dreams of somebody telling you to search for it. I thought that...that...because you had those dreams, that the person you were talking about...might have been yourself."
Tara, who had begun to believe Willow despite herself, now found herself doubting the redhead once again. Not bothering to turn around to address her, she asked, "So...what, Willow? Do you think I have a split personality or something? Do you think that I could be imagining all of this?"
"No, Tara!" Willow insisted. She tried to continue, but realized that there was only one way that Tara was going to believe her. And that was to tell her the truth. "Tara, I know how important it is to find the Mystical Silver Crystal because...because I'm looking for it, too."
Tara turned to look at Willow, but before she could say anything, Willow spoke again.
"Moon Prism Power Make Up."
Tara stood rooted to the spot as Willow's body was enveloped in a light so bright that she had to bring her hand up to shield her eyes. It faded quickly, and Tara looked in surprise at the person who now stood before her. It was still Willow, but she had changed. Where before she had worn a t-shirt and jeans, she now wore a leotard and skirt combination that looked similar to the school uniforms Tara knew Japanese girls wore. Her red hair was now blonde, done up in two buns on the side of her head from which trailed pigtails. A red bejeweled tiara rested on her forehead, pink bows on her chest and back, and pink knee length boots.
Tara couldn't believe what she was seeing.
Smiling faintly, Willow said, "I'm the beautiful Sailor Solider of love and justice, Sailor Moon. And in the name of the moon..." She paused, realizing that a change in her attack phrase was needed at this moment. "And in the name of the moon, I'll explain everything."
"You cannot be serious."
Standing in front of Angelus, Oz knew that he was speaking for the others when he voiced that. A glance at each of them all but confirmed this, though why they did not speak, he did not know.
Looking down, he saw the reason for this declaration laid out on the stone slab in front of them all. It was bad enough that their leader had chosen to bring the Sailor Soldier he had decided to capture here, but to utilize her in the manner that he had just finished describing did not make any sense.
"I can assure you that she can be conditioned to suit our purposes," Angelus said as if the worrisome complaints of his comrade were of no concern. "She is already in a state of emotional turmoil, no doubt brought about by the friction between her comrades. All she needs to be turned to our side is to be exposed to the power that Queen Metallia possesses. She will then become the instrument that will bring about the Sailor Soldier's destruction."
"This cannot end well, Angelus," Xander spoke up after the moment of silence that preceded his leader's assertion. "Even if this were to work, we have no guarantee that she will be compliant enough to do our bidding. For all that we know, she could end up seeking to destroy us as well. I do not think that is such a good idea, and neither would our Queen."
"Really?" Angelus asked, moving towards Xander, who became aware after a few moments that both Oz and Spike were backing away. Before he could do anything about it, however, Angelus had his sword up, the sharpened tip perilously close to his throat.
"Luckily, I don't need your approval for this," the elder warrior said, his gaze cold and unfeeling. "Neither do I need Faith's." He turned to the others. "And I especially do not need yours."
"But Faith is our master," Xander replied. "She would not approve of this."
"She would approve of any plan that brings about the defeat of the Sailor Soldiers," Angelus stated, looking at each of his comrades. "You all know that they are at odds at the moment. That alone assures their eventual destruction. Can none of you deny the fact that by having one of their own fight for us, their own internal strife would accelerate that much quicker, allowing us to strike directly at their heart and rid ourselves of their interference one and for all?"
He watched as Oz and Spike seemed to accept this, but noted that Xander remained unconvinced. He would no doubt report this little incident to Faith, acting like a dog blindly obeying the orders of his master without question.
Angelus wasn't surprised. Of the four of them, Xander was the one who appeared to be completely loyal to her, without any hints of deception or subterfuge marking his action. He knew not how much of the reverence Oz or Spike held for Faith was true and how much was an act, nor did he particularly care. To him, they were no different than Xander: blindly following the orders of a power mad woman who couldn't see past her own ambitions to look at the big picture, even if they did so only to mask their own ambitions and goals.
That was why Angelus capitulated to Faith like the others did, at the same time plotting to usurp her power and make it his own. But unlike the others, he was patient. All he had to do was bide his time until Faith managed to find a way to control the power that Metallia had at her disposal. Then, when that day came, she would perish at his hand. And he would then take up the mantle of King of the Dark Kingdom and lead them against the people of Earth.
With him in command of the forces of the Dark Kingdom and the power of Metallia at his side, those who could oppose him would be eliminated without mercy.
Angelus longed for the day when he would expunge the Earth of all humanity. It would be on that day that he would reign unopposed, secure in the knowledge that there was none who could defeat him.
Tara sat in surprise as Willow, who had reverted back to her original form, explained to her everything that had happened in the past two months: how Luna had come to her saying that the world was in danger of being overrun by the forces of the Dark Kingdom, how she and four other girls had come together to join forces in combating them, and all about the battles she had to fight, many of them by herself, with only a mysterious tuxedoed female assisting her.
She didn't need to hear any explanations from Willow about that, because, unknown to the redhead, she was that mysterious tuxedoed female. Tara knew now that she could tell Willow about that without fear, but knew also that, from what Willow had told her, her friends might not look at her in the same way. It would perhaps be for the best if that remained a secret, at least for the time being.
"So," she said once Willow was finished. "When I told you about my search for the Crystal, you thought that, because I knew about it, I might be the Princess of the Moon Kingdom?"
Willow nodded. "I've wanted to tell you for a long time, Tara. But I...I didn't think you would believe me."
Tara smiled faintly. "I understand, Willow. I know how difficult it can be to keep a secret from the one I love."
Willow chuckled slightly, though her head was still downcast. "I know."
The pair sat in silence for a minute or so before Tara got to her feet. "Where are you going?" Willow asked.
"I got you something," Tara answered, hoping that the change in topic wouldn't seem so abrupt. "For Christmas, I mean."
Willow's smile brightened as she looked up at Tara. "You didn't have to, Tara."
"I know," Tara replied. "But...I wanted to. Christmastime isn't a...isn't a good time for me. And I thought that the best way I could make myself happy was to...to make you...happy."
Willow blushed, knowing that this was another of Tara's habits: doing anything possible make her happy, even when it wasn't needed. But something sparked in the back of Willow's mind, making her realize how inappropriate Tara's gift was. "But Tara, Christmas isn't until Monday. You can't give it to me yet."
"I know," Tara admitted. "But I want to give it to you now so that...so that you have it with you. If it would make you feel better, you don't have to open it now. You can wait till Monday."
Willow thought about it for a moment, then said, "OK."
Tara left the living room and walked down the hallway to her bedroom. As soon as she was out of sight, Willow let out a sigh of relief, the weight she had accumulated from having to keep her dual nature from Tara for the past two months leaving her with that expelled breath. Now there would be no more secrets between them. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to relax.
Her moment of relaxation was brief, as she became aware of a faint buzzing sound somewhere nearby. Thinking that it was a bug that had managed to get inside Tara's house, Willow paid it no mind.
"Willow, you're buzzing."
Willow's eyes snapped open when she heard Tara's voice, realizing that it was her cell phone that was causing the buzz. Withdrawing it from her pocket, he opened it up. "Hello?"
"Willow, it's Cordelia. You'd better get back to the Secret Base right away."
Something about Cordelia's voice immediately had Willow on edge. "What's wrong?"
"We found Fred's stuff near the rec center."
Willow crinkled her brow in confusion. "What do you mean, 'you found her stuff?' Didn't you find her?"
Cordelia didn't reply, but her silence was all Willow needed to hear. "I'll be right over." She closed her cell phone and got to her feet, looking at Tara with an apologetic stare. "I'm sorry, Tara. I have to go. It's..."
"Soldier business?" Tara asked, and Willow noted that it was not only done in a kindly fashion, but with the faintest hint of a smile on her face. That melted Willow's heart immediately, knowing that there was now more of an understanding between the two of them than there ever had been before.
"I'm sorry, Tara," she tried to explain, but stopped as Tara brought a finger to her lips, her free hand working something into Willow's own.
"Don't explain it to me. Just go."
Willow smiled and ran down the stairs, grabbing her coat from the armrest as she did so. She worked her shoes on as fast as she could and ran out the door. Halfway to the street, she paused as she remembered the package Tara gave to her. Bringing her arms up, she opened her palms and looked at the box Tara had put into her hands. She opened it to find within a ring embedded with a small diamond.
Willow's eyes watered over as she smiled, sniffling a bit. "Thank you, Tara," she whispered as she put the ring on her finger, replaced the box in her pocket and began to run towards the Bronze.
Tara watched from the window as Willow ran off, then moved to her closet when her girlfriend was out of her eyesight. Opening, she withdrew the tuxedo ensemble, along with the shoes, hat, mask and cane. She got dressed quickly, leaving the mask for last.
She paused as she moved to put it on, taking at look at it and realizing for the first time the danger she was now about to put herself in. Before now, it didn't seem to matter that she was risking her life to protect Willow, because she had thought that Willow wasn't involved in the fight. But now that she knew that the redhead was more involved than she ever would have suspected, Tara felt different about donning the guise of Tuxedo Mask. She had done it in order to protect Willow from an enemy she knew nothing about, which she had thought she had accomplished incredibly well up until now. But now that she knew the risks of doing so, it didn't feel right for her to do it anymore.
"I can't do this anymore," she thought. "It isn't right. I can't continue to risk my life to protect Willow, because she will never stop risking her life to protect mine."
Putting the mask on over her eyes, Tara came to a decision as she left her home.
"This is the last time."