"I'm telling you, it wasn't me." Tara's father sounded sincere when his daughter was talking to him. Tara had called him, with the intention of leaving some harsh words, only to change her mind at the last moment and just ask him. All she wanted to know was why of it?
"If not you, who did?" Tara asked.
"How am I supposed to know?" Donald Maclay replied. "Maybe your friend Faith. She seems very fickle."
"No, not Faith," Tara shook her head. "I'm sure of that."
"Well..." Tara's father sounded hesitant.
"I might have... mentioned Willow to Donny a few days back when he got back from a mission," Donald replied.
Tara let out a heavy sigh. "Oh, dad..."
"Look, in any case, I just don't see the problem," Donald said. "You have report your relationship with Willow to the Head Office anyway. I'm sure everything will work out fine. And if not, there are plenty of Reaper girls who would be dying to date you."
"I told you, I only want Willow."
"Yeah, well sometimes we just don't get what we want," Donald spoke harshly. "It'll be the Head Office that makes the final decision in the end, not me, not Willow and not you."
Tara clicked off the phone, not bothering to say goodbye and tossed it onto the table, pausing for a moment to stand in front of the fan spinning around in the living room, often shifting along as the fan turned from one side to the other. Today was a very hot summer day, the first of many to come, and since Tara and Willow could not afford to buy an airconditioning yet, so they had borrowed loads of fans from friends who did own airconditioning.
But it was Willow that had Tara worried. She had taken this new development very hard, as if she was being judged by people she never met before. Willow was sitting behind her desktop on her computer table underneath the staircase, playing a shooter. One large fan was blowing cool air into her hoodless desktop, while three others were aimed at Willow as she played, blowing her long red hair into three different directions. Wearing a frilly summer skirt and a short white t-shirt with the USB logo imprinted on it, she made a very cute impression.
But looks were deceiving. Willow's expression was utterly emotionless while she was stemming the tides in the war against the half-mechanical, half-organic Strogg in Quake IV. She showed no sign of emotion, but displayed remarkable skill at gaming. Whenever a Strogg jumped out from a dark corner, Tara's first instinct would be to start and send her aim all over the screen, but Willow merely took aim with her shotgun and fired with deadly precision and without hesitation before moving on to the next Strogg, and the next. And the next. And the next.
The poor Strogg never had a chance. They were up against what Xander called 'Bruce Campbell Willow', determined and merciless.
"Willow," Tara whispered while she started to rub her lover's shoulders.
"It's not fair," Willow said harshly. "What do they got to do with us? What right do they have to tell us if we can be lovers or not? What business is it of theirs? So they'll judge me, huh? Well, I'll just judge them too, see how you like it."
"Everything'll be fine," Tara whispered, though she realized she might be lying to both her lover and herself. Willow had been in a foul mood ever since they received that fateful letter yesterday, and Tara hoped that having dinner over at casa de Summers tonight would make her feel better. Joyce had put up a big Rent-A-Pool in the backyard for the rest of the month and Dawn, Buffy and Faith were already practically living in it. Tara had already prepared their bathing suits and was very much looking forward to be able to cool off tonight in the big pool.
But first, they'd be having the hearing. Tara was only slightly worried, since Darla would be leading the hearing and she was on her side. Besides, they usually never looked in the Reaper archives during these proceedings, and she was reasonably sure that Mort had not left a paper trail. But there was still that nagging feeling in the back of her skull that she couldn't shake.
The doorbell rang for a moment. Faith entered the living room a few moments later. Faith greeted her friends while strolling past Tara. She dove into the fridge and took out with a cold beer. Faith slammed it down and leaned into the counter, showing off her woodland camo and matching black tanktop which had been customly imprinted with the phrase 'Buffy's Bitch' across her chest. Her dark hair was still glistening wet from all her dalliances in the pool, making Tara feel rather jealous.
"I just came by to wish you luck on your hearing," Faith sighed. "I know it sucks, and I'm just damn happy I don't have to report Buffy."
"Don't rub it in, Faith," Willow said as she paused her game. Tara shook her head and mused how Harvesters had so much more privileges than Collectors did. Mostly this was due to the importance placed upon their roles by the Powers-That-Be. As a result, Harvesters also had a big hand in creating policy, even though they were a minority group.
"It's ironic, really," Willow sighed. "If Tara'd still been a Harvester, I'd be dead, but we still would be allowed to date without question."
"That would kinda make me a necrophilliac, sweetie," Tara raised an eyebrow. "But yeah, it is ironic."
"Irony," Faith chuckled. "Well, I had a case of that. Was chasing this hick that was pegged for death. I spent days trying to figure out a perfect way to end his life. I'm finally ready to make my move while the guy is refueling his car at the gaspump, but while I'm moving in, he lights up a cigarette and blows himself straight to hell. Now, that's irony for ya. There were bloody bodyparts everywhere. It was very funny."
"Thanks for making us look like a bunch of maniacs, Faith," Tara chuckled while Willow shook her head
"I'll think I'll get dressed for our hearing," Willow spoke dejectedly and strolled up the staircase, while Faith took Tara to the balcony.
"I've been reading this book about ants," Faith said while the two of them were looking over the rooftops. "Really cool animals. Did you know that almost all of them are females? Ants are the original girl-power gals, T. Do you know what that means?"
"No, but I'm sure you're gonna tell me," Tara smirked.
"Well, gotta ants have needs too, you know?" Faith said. "And since there's no men, ypso fatso, they're all lesbians. Think about it. Hard at work all day, dragging food to the nest or taking care of the larvae, and when they get home, they need to relax. So when they meet up with their roommates, they go like 'hey, baby, let's do it'. Massive female-female orgies in ant hills all over the world!"
"Uhhm," Tara frowned. "Ants are highly sophisticated animals, but I don't think they're sophisticated enough to have sexual needs."
"It'd be fun though. Think how scared those moral bible thumper American Family Association types would be when they find out they're surrounded by 10000 trillion lesbians. Maybe they'll do the rest of the world a favor and commit mass suicide," Faith snorted. "Hm, ants can lift 20 times their own weight, so it's a good bet they're all large with the butch. So, watch out AFA! The butch lesbian ants are on the prowl for some sweet sugar!"
Tara laughed for a moment and turned to Faith. "Thanks," she said. You always know how to make me feel better, Faith."
Faith wrapped an arm around Tara and squeezed her a little. "Sisters forever, T. Now I gotta go. Buffy and I have a romantic picnic planned in the park. And there'd better not be any ants or I'll kill'em all."
Willow and Tara teleported into a small office in LA. Because the Head Office existed entirely in ethereal state, mortal humans couldn't remain there long, if at all. For cases such as Willow and Tara's, there'd been several secluded small offices set up across the world.
Willow had changed her clothes for the occasion. She'd made an effort to look like the perfect daughter in law, wearing a knee-long skirt and the suit she normally only wore to family weddings and the occasional job interview, while her red hair was tied back in a proper tail. Unfortunately, she was feeling out of place, since Tara was wearing a pair of blue slacks and a red T-shirt, and the older blonde woman in front of them was wearing a spaghetti string top and a pair of jeans.
"Hi," the woman greeted cheerfully and extended her hand. "I'm Darla Cooke, Tara's overseer. Nice to finally meet you, Willow."
"Uhm, thank you," Willow, who has not been expecting a friendly response, replied, also realizing that this was the woman she had spoken to over the phone when she had been looking for Tara.
Darla frowned for a moment. "Excuse me, have we met before? There's something familiar about you."
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no," Willow tittered nervously. "Uh, never saw you until today. Well, how could I see you, because you Reapers are usually invisible. Uh, not that you're always invisible, because I'm obviously seeing you now. Have to place the emphasis on the word 'now' here, because I've certain never seen or have spoken to you before. Honestly, I'm sure."
"Relax," Darla smiled encouragingly. "There's no need to be nervous. This is all just a formality. We're just waiting for the union representative before we can start."
Willow twirled her thumbs for a moment. She looked around the small office and saw that it was only sparsely furnished, indicating it wasn't used often. There was only a desk and a watercooler. The walls were whitewashed and the carpet was a cheap shaggy black. She couldn't see past the corridor, but she gathered that all the small offices in this building were the same.
Footsteps alerted her to someone else coming into the corridor. A few seconds later, a woman came in.
"I'm late, so sorry," sounded the sweet voice of a young woman wearing a dress robe. Her face was completely obscured by a huge stack of books she was carrying around. Sadly, the woman stepped on her robe and caused her to tumble forward, revealing a kind face and soft brown hair... just before she smacked against the wall.
Willow and Tara helped the woman pick up her books and, after the books had been placed on top of Darla's desk, the woman adjusted her glasses and extended her hand. "Sorry for being late. I'm Winifred Burkle. The union sent me to participate in the hearing and observe Tara's rights. Call me Winnie."
Tara smiled for a moment. This was the first time her Union membership would help her out. The Reaper Union was founded 150 years ago after seeing the successes the mortal Unions were having in the UK and Ireland. Mostly, the Union observed and fought for the rights of Collectors and office workers and waged a tireless battle with more conservative forces within the Reaper seniority. Over the past century, the Union had secured, among other things, higher wages, better housing and more vacation time for its members, maneuvering itself in a position of power and involvement in making policy. For the past few decades, the Union had been tirelessly making efforts to open the boundaries between the mortal and Reaper world, to allow Collectors to become more of a part of the world they lived in and form relationships and families with mortals. Almost all Collectors were members of the Union.
However, considering the Union had implemented measures to curb the privileged status of the Harvesters, which included making it easier for them to be charged with misconduct, had made the Union rather unpopular with them. As a result, only a few Harvesters were members.
"I want to ask a question first," Willow said, not waiting for the others to give her permission. "Is this hearing... because we're both girls?"
"No," Darla said resolutely. "That was never an issue."
Winnie shifted towards Willow. "Don't worry, we're not judging you. We just want to ask you a couple of questions to clarify a few things and give you some forms to fill out. We just want to make sure you're not a threat to either Tara or the Reapers if your relationship were to, um, fizzle out. Nasty divorces can have terrible repercussions if the spouse in question knows secrets, you see?"
"In that case, we can go home," Willow smiled and placed her hand on Tara's. "Because Tara and I are forever and I'd never do anything to hurt her. Not ever." Tara kissed Willow's forehead in response.
Darla rolled her eyes. "Oh, we've heard that before," she told Winnie.
"Huh?" Willow frowned. "From Tara? Tara, do you have something to tell me?"
Tara blinked. "Uh, n-no."
"No, no, we've heard before from other mortals dating Reapers. Just before painful separations and bitter divorces, that is," Darla shrugged.
"They were just weak," Willow smirked. "Tara and I are the real thing."
"Well," Darla chuckled. "I think we can skip tests one through three, then Winnie. Willow, just do this to humor us and fill out the forms, so you can go on with your life and laugh about this later."
Willow shifted uncomfortably under Darla's gaze. Though she seemed friendly enough, Tara and Winnie had went to a separate room, and not having Tara to support her through this was not making her feel any more comfortable.
"Okay, I'm going to ask you a few simple questions about Tara," Darla started. "Just answer honestly."
Willow frowned. "What kind of questions? Are we talkin' personal stuff here, cause we are not entering the bedroom, not a chance. I mean, you think you can just do and ask everything, like you Reapers are some sort of big shots, which, I guess is true, because of the death and collecting and all, but what I'm meaning to say is that some things are private and you have no right of knowing. If the government stepped on my doormat one day with their fancy black suits and fancy sunglasses and if they'd ask me all sorts of personal questions, I'd say 'No, you can't ask me that, because I have rights and I didn't vote for your dumb president Bush anyway. How does to feel to be in service of a guy who can't even open a door and managed to fall of both a Segway and a bicycle in the scope of a month? How does it feel, huh?'. Yeah, I'd tell them that. And the same to you. Uh, not that you're in the service of Bush. Uh, you're not are you?"
And blinked again, taking another moment to recover. "Uh, no. No, we're not in the service of Bush. He has given us a lot of extra work over the years, though."
"Oh... good. Well, not because of the extra work, of course, but because..."
"Hold it right there!" Darla broke in before Willow caught start another one of her devastating babbles. "There are just a few simple questions about your daily lives. Winnie is asking the same questions to Tara as well. I assure you, we won't ask any personal questions, mainly because the Union will have my ass on platter when I do."
"Oh," Willow shrugged. "Okay, then. But if I don't like the question, I won't answer."
"Fair enough. Question the first," Darla started. "What is the color of Tara's toothbrush?"
Willow bit her lip for a moment. "Uuhhhhhm... Mine's the green one. Tara's, uhm... we have a purple, red, blue and yellow one. Uhm..."
"You have five toothbrushes?"
"For emergencies," Willow said. "I mean, what if you accidentally drop your toothbrush in the toilet? It's been known to happen, so it's good to have a back-up brush.. Or two, especially if you're spazzing out and your drop your back-up brush in the toilet right next to the brush you already dropped down there."
Darla blinked again. "I'm... starting to get a clearer picture of you here. So, what's the color of Tara's brush?"
"Don't rush me, I'm thinking, I'm thinking..."
"Stalling, more like."
"Willow uses the green one," Tara smiled. "It's the same color as her eyes. I use the blue one, same color as my eyes. We have eye-matched toothbrushes. It was Willow's idea."
"Aw, that's sweet," Winnie penned down the answer. "Okay, next question. What's Willow's favorite book?"
"Oh, that's easy. That's 'C++ for You'."
"Moby Dick," Willow said resolutely. "That's Tara's favorite book."
"Alright," Darla jotted the answer down. "What's Tara's favorite hobby?"
"Cooking!" Willow announced cheerfully.
"I'd say fishing is my favorite hobby," Tara said, "even though I haven't been able to do it as often as I'd like."
"What's Willow's favorite hobby?" Winnie asked.
"Oh, anything computer related," Tara said.
"It's so hard to choose what my favorite hobby is," Willow frowned. "I like building computers, but I also love gaming and programming. Oh, and overclocking. Don't forget overclocking. And then there's hacking and webdesign. So many things to choose from."
Darla sighed. "Look, I'll just put down computers as your hobby and be done with it."
"But... that's so broad a term. I mean, there are so many aspects of..."
"NEXT question," Darla grimaced. "Who do you think Tara would say is your best friend?"
"Oh, she won't be able to choose," Tara chuckled for a moment.
"Well, there's Xander, who's been my friend forever, and there's Buffy and Anya and Dawn and Larry and... Look, I just can't leave anyone out here, I'd feel horrible. Can I skip this question? Please?"
"Alright, alright," Darla sighed. "Let's do something simpler then. Who'd you say is Tara's best friend?"
"Faith," Willow smiled. "Easy."
"Faith, has been for five years," Tara said.
"Okay," Winnie asked. "So who did Willow most wanted to be like when she was growing up?"
"Indiana Jones... Hey, don't laugh."
"Hey, don't laugh!" Willow scoffed at Darla. "I was a kid. Besides, he's cool. Of course, that's not what my mom said when I used her necklace as a whip and accidentally shattered her hideously expensive crystal tea service when I was six. She still reminds me of it every time I go to visit, which isn't very often anymore."
"Okay, okay, who did Tara want to be like when she was growing up."
"Uhhh..." Willow bit her lip. "We haven't talked much about that time. I... don't... think... Uh... James Bond?"
"Okay," Winnie continued. "What would you say is the best thing that's been happening to Willow in the past few months? Besides your relationship, obviously."
"I'd say it's that her relationship between her and her father is improving," Tara smiled. "They seem to be catching up for lost time. They went to a ballgame last weekend."
"We went to a ballgame last weekend. It's not exactly a typical father-daughter activity, but we had lotsa fun. I suspect he also went for the hot-dogs, because mom is sorta going through a vegetarian phase at the moment... I noticed my dad started calling them 'hot-gods'. I swear, I never ate so many hot-dogs in my life. We're going to the comedy club next week."
"Alright, that answer is clear," Darla said. "What do you think is Tara's biggest regret?"
Willow thought for a moment. "Leaving for Canada."
"Not stopping Faith from killing my idiot brother that one time," Tara spoke bitterly. "But I suppose Willow doesn't know that. I have to say it was jumping to conclusions and running off to Canada."
"Alright," Winnie asked. "What did you do for your three month anniversary? Do you still remember?"
"She cooked a lovely dinner for us both, we cuddled together on the couch and after that it gets kinda personal and large with the none of your business," Willow said resolutely, her resolve-face on sharp.
"Alright," Darla smiled. "I think we're done here."
It only took Darla and Winifred five minutes to talk things over, but for Willow and Tara who were waiting in the other room, that might just as well have been an eternity. For a moment, Willow was huddled against Tara, whispering that she'd botched up and got all the answers wrong. Both girls rose from their seats as the others walked in.
"Calm down," Darla smiled. "Considering your answers and seeing Willow's background check came back favorably, we see no reason to deny you permission to pursue your relationship."
The next moment, Tara and Willow just hugged. Tara especially was relieved, and thankful that Darla had not dug deep enough to actually find out that Willow was an intended target. For a moment, Willow was neatly nestled against her. Until...
"Wait a minute," Willow frowned at Darla. "What background check?"
"Oh, criminal records, that sorta thing," Darla shrugged and handed both Willow and Tara a set of file-folders, both weighing about a pound each. "Now, all we need you to do is to fill out these forms and deliver them to us in person as early as possible. Tara, I understand you trying to avoid submitting your girlfriend to Reaper bureaucracy, but I'm afraid there's no escaping it. Next time, just make it easy on all of us and report your lover within the three month time-limit."
"HEY!" Willow broke in. "There's not going to be a next time or a next lover, right Tara?"
"Right," Tara smiled before kissing her Willow on the tip of her nose.
"Oh, we've heard that before too," Darla chuckled.
Back in the safety of their very, very warm home, Tara was pouring over the many forms to be filled in while Willow was looking through the documentation booklet she had gotten with her packet of forms. In particularly, she was looking at 'So You Are Seeing A Reaper? Answers To Frequently Asked Questions. Version 2.1C for Lesbian couples.'
Mostly it contained information she had already learned during her search for Tara, but it did contain some interesting new things. "Wow. The Reapers recognize gay marriage?"
Tara shrugged. "When Death is part of your nature, you learn to appreciate love."
"'Inquire for our adoption or in-vitro programs'," Willow read. "'Adopt a child or conceive on from your own DNA. Absolutely free of charge'."
"There's some snags there, though," Tara said. "This is a measure meant to increase Reaper population. Very controversial in some circles, because of the mixing of mortal in our bloodlines. The programs is free, but the child is expected to be raised as a Reaper and, if the relationship fails, the Reaper parent always gets custody."
"Still," Willow said. "It's a nice idea to be able to get married and have a baby. Uh, not that I am in any way ready for either. It's just nice to know that we can. Oooh, look here!" Willow raved as she came to the last case and found a DVD to accompany the booklet. "Lets watch it, baby."
"Oh, no, not the DVD," Tara cringed. "Sweetie, take it from me, there's nothing on there that you already know. Besides, it's a piece of crap propaganda. The animation is so low-budget, it makes Southpark seem photo realistic. Let's just fill out these forms and go to the Summer's house... and the pool... and the cool, azure blue waters inside."
"Unless you're wearing that blue bathing suit again," Willow smirked. "The heat generated from my body whenever I see you in that, is sure to boil away the water as soon as I jump in. Uh, can we go now? What's the point of these forms? They're all the same!"
"They have to go to different departments," Tara shrugged. Filling out forms had been a way of life for her since childhood.
"Can't they just xerox it 75 times?" Willow pouted.
"Ah, but that would be logical and user-friendly. Can't have that," Tara smirked. Making fun of bureaucracy had been a way of life of her ever since she found out filling out forms would become a way of life for her.
As it turned out, Buffy and Faith never had their picnic in the park. Instead, they put up two ladders next to the pool, spun a plank over it and ate their lunch while in the cold, refreshing water of the pool and never left it again.
Luckily, Buffy and Dawn never minded their mooching friends joining them. While Joyce was making dinner, Xander was floating around in the pool sitting in a blow-up lawn chair, while Anya was reading magazines from a floating tray at the side of the pool and Dawn was swimming under water from one side to the pool to the other, trying to break her record. Willow and Tara had just joined them, and were floating around chatting, while Buffy and Faith were at the side of the pool, just finishing off the single ice-cream cone they were sharing.
"Anyone want some cold lemonade?" sounded Joyce as she emerged from the kitchen with a tray in hand.
There was a swift rush of water as the pool's occupants rushed towards the side of the pool where Joyce had put down the lemonade and hurled themselves on the cold beverages like thirsty camels.
"Shouldn't someone tell Dawn there's lemonade-y goodness to be had?" Xander asked when he saw Dawn was still swimming underwater.
"Or, we could split Dawn's lemonade between the six of us before she notices," Buffy smirked.
"One is for Dawn!" Joyce called from the kitchen.
The friends cheerfully drank the lemonade while Dawn was still blissfully unaware.
"Your mom's been getting used to us," Faith told Buffy. "But for some cosmic reason, she still keeps walking in on us when we're dancing the watusi. Just this morning..."
"Don't remind me, you'll just make me mad again," Buffy scoffed.
"What did she do?" Xander asked. "Steal the blankets?"
"She corrupted Mr. Gordo!" Buffy huffed.
"Hey, it's not my fault," Faith replied. "Your mom walked in on us, what was I supposed to do? Just sit there in bed being topless? That wouldn't do."
"Couldn't you have used a pillow to cover yourself?"
"Hey, Mr. Gordo is already a pig. Besides, are you jealous, B?" Faith smiled, a twinkle in her eyes. "Tell you what, next time your mom walks in on us, I'll wrap you over my chest. Is that okay with you?"
"I'm thinking..." Buffy replied.
"Besides, Mr. Gordo has seen everything we've done together in your room. Do you really think he's so innocent?"
"Xander," Anya hissed. "The lesbians are taking up all the sexual anecdote screentime."
"Ahn," Xander warned.
"Last night Xander and I had sex for three hours," spoke up loudly. "Really, and it involved custard."
"AHN!" Xander quickly covered Anya's mouth before she could reveal any more intimate details while Buffy, Willow, Tara and even Faith looked a little embarrassed.
"Custard?" Willow frowned.
"Oh, don't tell me you've never used custard," Anya crossed her arms.
"Uh, no," Tara blushed. "We p-prefer honey."
"Xander!" Anya scoffed. "Why don't we use honey? Don't tell me you're too cheap to pick up some honey for us!"
While Xander was desperately looking for a rescue, Dawn rose from the water, oddly resembling a drowning dolphin gasping for air. "Four minutes, thirty-one seconds! My new personal be... Oh, lemonade!"
The next day, Tara reported to the Head Office to deliver the stacks of paperwork to Darla. Feeling content and happy, she stepped into the elevator which deposited her on the fifth floor, close to Darla's office.
Oddly enough, Tara could see through the glass window of her office that she was arguing with someone. Arguing quite fiercely. When Tara came closer, she saw Darla was shouting at a remarkably call young man wearing a business suit. He said a few more words and Darla exploded, her words obscured by the thick glass.
When the man walked out of the office, he passed Tara and gave her a smirk that made the blood freeze in her veins. Tara frowned and quickly stepped into Darla's office, who was still upset.
"Uhm, I, uh, brought the paperwork," Tara said. "Is everything alright?"
Darla sank back in her air and fiddled with a bottle of pills for a moment, pills that were intended to help her with her high blood pressure. A few moments later, a frustrated Darla, who was unable to handle the bottle's child-proof cap, threw it across the room.
"No," she finally said. "No, everything's not alright. The man who just left, that was Lindsey McDonald. He represents a conservative group of seniors who want to enforce the bureaucracy. Tara... they want to use you to set an example and to fault their way of thinking."
"D-darla," Tara felt her heart pound in her chest. "W-what are you s-saying?"
"I'm very sorry, Tara," Darla closed her eyes. "But you and Willow have to appear in front of a tribunal."
The paperwork slipped from Tara's hands and fell to the ground, fighting back the tears already running over her cheeks.