Willow had a hard time controlling her nerves. The Tribunal was being held in the same building in which they had their review, only two days ago now. The room she was in now was large and gaudy, filled to the brim with all kind of death-related kitsch. Several benches behind her were for visitors, since these were open proceedings and gave room for at least fifty spectators. Before those benches were two smaller tables, one for the defending party and one for the accusing party. In front of those benches was the witness box, to the right side of the the raised platform on which the Tribunal would be sitting. On the left side of the raised platform, facing the witness-box from across the room, was an even higher platform.
Tara had explained something about the Tribunal. It was the Reaper form of a trial. The Tribunal consisted of three anonymous learned Reapers, who were randomly chosen and basically filled the role of the Jury. On the raised platform sat the Hortator, basically filling the role of judge.
Willow was wearing her best jacket, a black little number, over a blue shirt and a light green skirt. Her long red hair spilled across the shoulders of her jacket, while on top of her head rested a lime-green beret. Though she was wearing a perfectly matched outfit, Willow felt like an outsider because all the other people in the room were wearing dress-robes. Even Tara sitting next to her was clad in a long, black robe. Most of the other Reapers were hooded, but Tara had pulled hers off for Willow's benefit. Willow thought that the dress-robe looked very good on her. Unlike the cloak, it hugged her body, showing off her generous curves. Gold-colored stitching signified Tara's rank and order, in her case, the order of Anubis.
Willow noticed just how tacky this entire courtroom was. Above the Tribunal dais loomed a huge cloaked and blind-folded skeleton which was holding a set of scales in one hand, and a scythe in the other. All along the walls were wood-carvings which seemed to be straight from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, if his paintings would star only skeletons, that is. The woodcarvings were cordoned off by thick red cords held up by a series of copper cordon holders, but somehow one joker had managed to place a pair of sunglasses on the head of one of the more imposing looking skeleton characters and had whittled the name 'Arnie S.' on his ribcage.
"I'm scared," Willow whispered while Winifred sitting next to them and Lindsey at the accuser's table were each sifting through a stack of papers.
"Me t-too," Tara replied and squeezed her lover's hand slightly.
Willow started slightly when one young men, apparently wearing heavy boots, entered the room and strutted around as if he owned the place. Immediately, Tara gritted her teeth. She rose from her seat while Willow looked at her quizzically. Tara had a steady stride as she walked up to the young man. The young man noticed her and held out his arms as if welcoming her for a hug.
The shock came when Tara slapped the young man in the face. Hard. Willow knew something was very wrong and rushed up to her lover while she and the young man were moving into the corridor, away from the gathered Reapers.
Willow regarded her lover and saw that here was a coldness in her lover's eyes that frightened her a bit.
"Ow," the young man grinned while he rubbed his cheek. "Well, sis, you're certainly overreacting."
"Do you really hate me this much?" Tara motioned towards the courtroom. "Do really enjoy hurting me like this?"
"Who's hurting who?" the young man, which Willow know must be Tara's brother Donny. "I was just doing my civic duty by bringing your illegal relationship to the attention of the right authorities. It's your own fault for not reporting your fashion-challenged floozy here."
An angry Tara moved to slap her brother for a second time, but this time, Donny grabbed her arm by the wrist and twisted it painfully behind Tara's back.
"HEY! Back off, Billy-bob!" shouted Willow when she saw Donny hurting Tara and pushed into him. Donny was more amused than hurt and snatched the beret from Willow's head. He grinned for a moment and held the beret in front of her, but Willow had met more than one bully in her life to know he was planning to keep the beret just out of her reach if she'd try to make a grab for it. And she was not willing to play games with this... guy, this miserable excuse for a man that hurt her Tara...
"Keep it," Willow told Donny coldly. "Come on, baby," Willow rubbed Tara's shoulder. "Let's go back inside."
Tara smiled briefly and took Willow's hand. Together, they turned their backs on Donny and started to walk away from him.
"Tara! Don't you walk away from me, or I'll swear I'll beat you do... AH!" sounded behind them, followed by a dull 'thunk' and the sound of a body hitting the ground. After turning around, the two surprised girls saw Faith standing over the downed Donny.
"Oopsie, T," giggled Faith. "I seem to have violently shoved your brother's face into the wall. Oh, I am such a klutz. Such a violently successful accident."
That said, Faith snatched the beret from his hand and gave it to Willow, who quickly placed the lime-colored thing on top of her head, adjusting it slightly.
"Ooooh," groaned Donny. "What happened? OH, SHIT, IT'S THE LOONEY! LET ME OUT OF HERE!" he shouted as soon as he saw Faith grinning at him. He circled around Faith, giving her a wide berth and pushed between Willow and Tara before he felt back into the courtroom, hoping that Faith wouldn't attack him amongst so many other people.
Willow was grateful that Faith did not care for protocol and wore a simple camo, black tanktop and no dress-robe. She wouldn't be the only one to stand out that way. She noticed Tara offered Faith a grateful little half-smile before the dark-haired spitfire put an arm around both her friends and led them back into the courtroom.
Minutes later, the Hortator arrived. He was a short man with a small beard, who looked short even when standing on the pedestal. It was more than obvious that he held all the power in this room, though. The Hortator slammed down his gavel to silence the gathered Reapers and from a small antechamber on the side of the courtroom, came in three Reapers wearing simple black robes and their faces were completely covered by heavy iron masks. When the three Reapers forming the Tribunal were seated, the proceedings began.
"Tribunal is in session," the Hortator announced imperiously. "Case 103759-B, in Death's name. Reaper Council versus Tara Maclay, Senior Collector 2nd class, assigned to the L.A. Outskirts region. Lindsey MacDonald representing the Reaper Enforcement of Issues Department and Winifred Burkle representing the Union, Tara Maclay and miss Willow Rosenberg. Lindsey MacDonald, you may begin."
Lindsey moved from his bench to face the Tribunal. "Ladies and gentlemen. I am not one to deny a person love and happiness. We Reapers are human, after all, with inherent needs. Though love between a Reaper and a mortal is still a controversial issue among our ranks, it is allowed to a degree, but only when a specific set of rules are to adhered to. Tara Maclay broke those rules. Today, I intend to prove that Tara Maclay's relationship with miss Rosenberg is a danger to herself and to us as a whole. Our business if Death. If the mortals find out too much about us, it will make our job impossible for us and will doom countless souls who are deserving of the afterlife to the terrible fate of hauntings. As such all mortals must be subjected to careful screenings, no exceptions. I am confident to make a case against Reaper/mortal dalliances and to force the end of the relationship between Tara Maclay and Willow Rosenberg."
"Your motion is understood and accepted," the Hortator spoke. "Miss Burkle?"
Winnie placed her hands on both Willow and Tara's shoulder for a moment before she approached the Tribunal. "Ladies and gentlemen of the Tribunal. I am sure that my esteemed colleague here would like to see everybody tow the company line. In fact, I'm sure he'd love to see the Reaper core go the way of George Lucas and be made up entirely out of soulless clones who follow orders without question and never think outside of the box. But, my friends, love does not play by the rules... and thank Death for that. I intend to prove that both Tara Maclay and Willow Rosenberg's life are enriched by each other and that Reapers as a whole will benefit from the opportunity to forge relationships with mortals."
"Your motion is understood and accepted," the Hortator called. "Though I want to make it clear to that Reaper policies are not on Tribunal here. Policies are only to be applied if they are relevant to this specific case. Now, Miss Maclay, please approach the witness box."
After a brief embrace from Willow, Tara nervously stepped up to the witness box. She sat down, facing the Tribunal and, after a taking a moment to calm herself, spoke at them. "In D-d-eath's n-name."
Winifred was the first to question Tara. "I'm sure this must be very painful for you, Tara."
"Y-yes, it is," Tara confirmed. "I just want to go home... with Willow."
"How long have you been seeing each other?"
"Close to s-seven months n-now," Tara said.
"And I understand you are living together." Winifred asked. "How's that working out for you?"
Tara smiled in spite of herself. "It's lovely home. We are c-chronically short on m-money between Willow being in college and my s-salary being... not so much, but we get by. We h-have each other, that's all that m-matters. Uhm, well, but with this weather we've been having, it would be nice to have each other and a-airconditioning."
"You must love her very much," Winifred smiled.
"She makes me complete," Tara blushed slightly.
"And Willow loves you too?"
"She t-tells me every single h-hour," Tara smiled softly.
"And now you're here, facing the possible end of your relationship because of Reaper policy. How does that make you feel, Tara?"
Tara sighed deeply. "It makes me feel r-rejected. It makes me... not want to be a Reaper a-anymore."
"No more questions."
Tara looked on warily as Lindsey slowed rose from his seat and strolled towards the witness-box until he was less than two feet away from her.
"So these legal proceedings makes you not want to be a Reaper anymore?" Lindsay started. "Boohoo, miss Maclay."
"Now, miss Maclay, there's something I don't understand," Lindsey started. "First of all, I can see why you'd have trouble with complying to our rules, but what I really don't understand is why you hadn't told Willow about your vocation. I mean, Death lies at the heart of your being. A Reaper is what you are, collecting souls is your calling, your raison d'etre. Yet you have not told the woman you claim to be the love of your life any of those things, have you?"
Tara bowed her head low, mouthing her words as if to speak.
"The Tribunal requires an answer miss Maclay," Lindsey pressed.
"N-no," Tara finally answered.
Lindsey nodded briefly. "I see. May I ask why you chose not to tell her? Didn't you think she had a right to know?"
Tara closed her eyes, suppressing the tears she already felt welling up. "I w-was s-scared."
"Scared?" Lindsey raised an eyebrow. "What exactly were you afraid of? Could it be commitment? She is your first lover, after all, it would not be strange to have cold feet."
"N-no," Tara smiled. "From the moment I met Willow, I w-wanted us to be t-together."
"So it's not commitment," Lindsey pressed. "Then what was it that made you so afraid to tell her?"
"I didn't want her to be... afraid of me," Tara finished. "Of w-what I r-represent."
"That is... strange, miss Maclay," Lindsey shrugged. "I was under the impression that love, true love, is blind. Surely, if miss Rosenberg loves you as much as you say, she would have accepted you for who and what are you, no?"
"I thought that she..." Tara started to say, only to be interrupted by Lindsey.
"Just the facts, miss Maclay," Lindsey said. "You know, I can't help but think that knowingly omitting to share such an important part of your life... is just the same as lying, really. So, how long did you lie to miss Rosenberg?"
"I... I..." Tara sobbed slightly in witness-box.
"How did miss Rosenberg find out?" Lindsey interrupted. "I'm sure we're all wondering about that. She's sitting here now, isn't she? So she must know by now."
"She... she... found my c-cloak and u-used it," Tara whispered silently, cringing when she heard the murmurs from the gathered visitors until the Hortator silenced them by slamming his gavel on his desk.
"Ah," Lindsey snorted. "Do you realize just how dangerous our tools can be to a mortal, Maclay? Do you realize you could have gotten your 'lover' killed?"
"I n-never meant to h-hurt Willow. I l-love..."
"So besides being a liar," Lindsey spat. "You're also both negligent and incompetent! You're painting a very nice picture of yourself here, miss Maclay! I might even say that you're doing my job for me. Tell me, if miss Rosenberg hadn't found you out, how long would you have waited to tell her? A month? A year? Or maybe you weren't planning on telling her at all."
"N-no," Tara spoke through her tears, as there was no way she could stop herself from crying at this point. "I m-mean yes. I was going to t-t..."
"Oh, save it!" Lindsey spat. "You were..."
"OBJECTION!" was shouted suddenly, startling everybody in the room. Willow was standing and looked at the Hortator with her resolve-face. "OBJECTION, YOUR HONOR! He's... he's badgering the witness. He's leading the jury! He's just being a big, fat poopy-head who's making my Tara cry! I'm sure there's some sort of rule against that, and if there's not, there really really should be. Cause it's not right."
The Hortator responded in a kindly voice. "Miss Rosenberg, this is not L.A. Law. We don't do objections here. Accuser and Defender speak in turn, but rest assured that if I see a breach in protocol, I shall intervene." That said, the Hortator looked at the Tribunal. One of the masked Reapers gave the Hortator a brief nod. "But your defense of miss Maclay has been noted by the Tribunal," he said after turning back to Willow. "We shall take a brief recess to allow miss Maclay to regain her composure."
"It's okay," Willow whispered while holding Tara close to her. They had retreated in a small private room to help Tara recover. "It's all gonna be fine. FineyMcFine."
"I r-really w-wanted to tell you. I..."
"Hush, sweet Tara," Willow shushed her gently while Tara laid her head on Willow's shoulder. "We've already talked about this. It's all in the past."
"I love you. I never wanted this to happen..."
"Tell me... we're going to be alright," Willow whispered. "Tell me a story. Tell me where we'll go from here..."
Tara smiled gently and closed her eyes. "When we get home, I'm going to cook you the loveliest dinner you've ever had. I'll take you in my arms and feed you grapes as a desert, before I'll take you upstairs and make love to you all night. And then, the next morning, we'll be going away from everything, on an adventure."
"Will we be wearing hats?"
"Oh, yes, seven kinds of hats. Each."
"All at once?"
"All at once. We'll be driving across route 66 all day and night, through the wilderness."
"But we don't own a car... or a driver's license."
"It'll be a magic car that'll drive itself. Kinda like KITT only without the curly guy driving it."
"Hmmm," Willow smiled. "I can't wait to put my screwdriver in KITT to see what makes him tick. Will we have lots of adventures?"
"Oh, yes. We'll be having lots of adventures," Tara snuggled closer to Willow. "We'll chase international jewel thieves. And we'll foil a supervillain's dastardly plot to turn all the cows in the world into solid gold statues. We'll help King Arthur and his knights hunt for the Holy Airconditioner of Antioch, only to stuff it in the back of the trunk and drive off with it. Oh, and we'll find and photograph the Yeti, Nessie and King Kong. And then you, me and King Kong travel together to Salomon's lost mines in Africa, making us all gazillionaires. But King Kong ends up blowing it all on giant bananas, so we drive on until we arrive at the sword in the stone. You pull it out and become the once and future queen of Avalon."
"Hmm, sounds nice," Willow purred. "I don't care who they are or what they can do. I'm not gonna let them take you away from me. Whatever happens, we'll be together..."
"I love you, Willow," Tara whispered. "We'll get through this. We have to get through this."
Recess ended and the Tribunal continued. This time, important witnesses were to be heard. Faith had taken place in the witness-box and was already glaring holes in Lindsey's skull.
"Miss Lehane," said Winifred, who was the first to question Faith. "You and Tara have been friends for a long time, haven't you?"
"Call me Faith," Faith replied. "Yeah, T. and I have known each other for... almost six years, now. Met at our Collector's graduation, been friends ever since."
"How would you describe Tara before she met Willow?"
"Lonely," Faith said. "Same as me, really. We were two lonely peas in a pod."
"Would you say Tara's changed after she met Willow, Faith?"
"Hell yeah," Faith said. "She's much happier, just look at her. Uh, well, maybe not now exactly, because of this dumb-ass Tribunal."
The Hortator coughed. "Watch yourself, miss Lehane."
Faith shrugged while Winifred continued. "I believe you too have benefited from Tara's relationship with Willow?"
"Yeah," Faith smiled briefly, her hand resting on the soft wooden bracelet Buffy had made for her in one of her art classes. "I'm seeing Willow's friend Buffy. We're having our three month anniversary in a few days."
Winifred nodded. "I'm happy for you. But one thing has me puzzled. As a Harvester, you are not required to report your relationship with Buffy. Yet Tara was, and because she did not report her relationship with Willow, she has to appear in front of Tribunal. What are your thoughts on that?"
"It's bullshit," Faith said angrily. "Tara doesn't deserve this crap! This whole damn Tribunal is crapola de jour! Tara's in love, Willow's in love. What's the frickin' problem already?! Leave them alone!"
"MISS LEHANE!" the Hortator slammed his gavel onto the oak wooden table. "Behave yourself!"
"No further questions," Winifred grinned slightly, a spring in her step. Lindsey took a deep breath and rose from his seat.
"So, Faith," Lindsey started.
"You can call me Miss Lehane," Faith grinned. "And I'll call you asshole."
"Miss Lehane!" the Hortator warned.
"Well, Miss Lehane..."
"Yes, asshole?" Faith spoke in an innocent little girl's voice.
Lindsey gritted his teeth for a moment. "Miss Lehane, I have been looking into your personal history. It is noted in your file that you have anarchistic tendencies and are known to have problems with authority figures. A fact which you have aptly confirmed just now. Could it be that your aversion for protocol, rules and order governs your distaste for our procedures, rather than concern for your friend?"
"Yeah, I'm anarchy-girl. But I also love T. You saying I can't have both?"
"I have a problem with your story, miss Lehane," Lindsey shrugged. "You see, I've been delving in your personal history a bit. According to some sources, you have had a promiscuous past, also being indiscriminate about your sex partner's gender."
"Huh?" Faith frowned. "Ooooh, I get it. You mean that I've been screwing around! Yeah, I have. That's not illegal... but it was fun."
"Really? Well, I found it odd, though, that you, as a girl who has no trouble with sexual diversity, and who is good friends of a known lesbian, never allowed something more to develop between the two of you?"
"What?!" Faith blinked.
"Oh, you know what I mean. You were both lonely women. How much trouble could you have spared Tara if you had allowed her to fall in love with you instead. Instead, the both of you remained lonely and miserable for five years until Tara met Willow. That's five years that shouldn't have happened, if you had made more of an effort to invest in a relationship with Tara. And this whole Tribunal could have been avoided."
"So," Faith said angrily. "Now it's my fault?!"
Lindsey shrugged. "You could say that."
Faith blinked again. "You're one sick puppy, you know that? I just don't see Tara that way, it would be weird. You know, women can be friends without being large with the gay-sex, asshead."
"I was merely making a point. No further questions."
"Darla Cooke, Collector Superior of the L.A. Bay district," said Darla. "I oversee and coordinate with the Collector Seniors of the regions that make up the L.A. Bay district."
"I see," Winifred said. "As Tara's direct superior, are you satisfied with her performance?"
Darla smiled at Tara. "Tara's performance has been exemplary. She's got a tough job to do all on her own, but she is a dedicated and driven Reaper with a perfect record. I am very happy to have her in my team. In fact, I have just authorized a payrise for her. I'm just sorry I have to tell her under these circumstances."
"In the seven months that Tara has been seeing Willow, have there ever been a lapse in her performance? Would you say her work has suffered during this time?"
"Not at all," Darla said. "In fact, her work has improved. It's as if her batteries are fully charged, if you forgive the car metaphor."
"You support Tara's relationship with Willow, do you not? You reviewed Tara's case and approved their relationship, right?"
"You were there, you should know," Darla smiled. "Yes, Tara was a little late in reporting her relationship, but I didn't see anything wrong with approving it."
"Ahum," announced the Hortator. "We are treading close to a conflict of interests here, miss Burkle."
"No further questions."
Lindsey was up next. "Well, miss Cooke, this is all very entertaining, but I see in your log that Tara put in a transfer some time ago, did she not? I wonder, why was that?"
"She, um," Darla bit her lip and sighed deeply. "was... having trouble."
"I see," Lindsey snorted. "So she ran off. To where exactly?"
"Canada," Darla sighed.
"You knew, didn't you?" Lindsey crossed his arms. "You know that Tara was seeing someone and did not report it or take action."
"I thought she would come forward herself when she was ready to," Darla shrugged. "Look, I have the responsibility for the happiness and mental health for the Collectors in my jurisdiction. And I can't do that when I constantly have to deal with often conflicting sets of rules and all the paperwork I'm always buried in. Plus, even though five regions have been added to my district, my staff and budget are constantly being cut. Not to mention the fact that we have no right to meddle into the love lives of our collectors."
"So you never reported it and never took action," Lindsey practically growled. "You have no regard for the rules that safeguard our society and you have no respect for the important position you hold."
"Careful, mister MacDonald," the Hortator cautioned. "Miss cooke is not facing Tribunal here."
"No more questions," Lindsey sighed.
"So, young mister Maclay," spoke Lindsey. "You are in fact, the person who brought this illegal affair to our attention, are you not?"
"Yes, I am," Donny stated proudly, earning herself hateful glares from Willow and Tara, but especially from Tara.
"Some people might frown upon this, seeing how you reported a family member," Lindsey stated. "What are your thoughts on this?"
"Those people don't know Tara," Donny scoffed. "She needs to be protected from herself. She's, um, kinda emotional, you see? I mean, just look at her," he pointed at Tara, who was visibly having a hard time keeping calm. "See? She has very little control. Tendancy to do crazy things."
"Ah, and you see it as your duty as her brother to protect her from herself?" Lindsey asked.
Donny leaned back in the bench. "Yeah. This relationship between her and that girl? It's disgusting. I mean, that Willow chick over there needs to stick to her own kind and keep her mortal mits off my impressionable kid sister."
"I see. Why would you call Tara impressionable?" Lindsey asked.
"I mean, come on, look at her," Donny snickered. "Look at what she's wearing, listen to her stutters. She's klutzy and shy. She's the kind of kid that would get into a car with a stranger if he offers her candy. I'm sure this Willow chick has been scheming to do something to Tara."
"No more questions," Lindsey nodded.
A few moments later, Winifred stepped up to the bench. "Donny... may I call you Donny?" asked Winnie
"You may," the young man leered, making Winnie shift uncomfortably.
"Alright, Donny. I've been researching your relationship with Tara, but I always ended up reviewing the same thing: Tara's medical history." Winnie continued. "Do you remember what happened at Tara's tenth birthday party?"
Donny chuckled. "Oh, yeah, that was so much fun. Dad had gotten this pony and it was in the backyard. Tara got really scared of it and started running around the backyard. She didn't look where she was going and fell right into her own birthday cake and she had to cry. It was so funny."
"Is that really how that went?" Winnie frowned. "According to the medial report, little Tara was happily riding the pony and you pushed her off just as the pony was walking past the cake-table. You humiliated her in front of her classmates, ruined her party and her cake and, oh and now we come to the reason for the medical report, she hit her head really hard on the table and had to spend the rest of her birthday in the hospital for observation, didn't she?"
"Yeah, well," Donny sputtered. "It was just a harmless prank. No harm done."
"Just as there was no harm done on the 4th of July celebration when Tara was sixteen and you stuffed lit firecrackers down the back of Tara's shirt? I assumed the first and second degree burns across her back could be considered a harmless prank as well, then? Or what about christmas of 2000?"
"All harmless," Donny scoffed.
"Harmless?" Winnie raised a voice a bit. "You broke her wrist and set her on fire!"
"Only her hair... a bit," Donny shrugged. "Look, it was just... messin' around. Brother-sister stuff."
"Hm, like that time you stole money from your mentor during your basic training and blamed Tara for it? Ah, yes, you did come clean, when Tara was close to being expelled and left back for a year because she had no alibi and only then because you were found out by your father. May I put to motion," Winnie continued. "That you have a long-standing history of pulling these so-called 'harmless' pranks on your poor sister and that this entire proceeding, apart from wasting this tribunal's time, is just another way to make life difficult on your long suffering sister?"
In the background, Willow lay head on Tara's shoulder, offering support. She had known that Tara and her brother were often at odds, but she never realized he had been so terrible to her.
"Now, see here!" Donny rose from the bench, but a glare from the Hortator made him sit down again.
Winnie held her hands behind her back and she paced back and forth in silence for a moment. "In fact, I think it's safe to say that you are far more harmful to her than this so-called 'exposure' to Willow could ever be! Do you feel threatened by her, is that it? Or are you just a spiteful little toad who wants everybody to be just as miserable as you are?"
"Well, what do you expect?" Donny glowered. "Tara. Daddy's little girl. She's always been his favorite! Oh, he denies it, but I'm not stupid, not then and not now. Where does that leave me, then, ey dad?"
Tara frowned slightly and glanced towards the bench where her father was sitting. Her father, however, avoided her gaze.
"No more questions," Winnie nodded.
"Mr. Maclay," Lindsey spoke. "I'm sorry to take you away from your Harvesting, but I'm certain you see the need for this interruption. May I ask, what are your thoughts on relationships between Reapers and mortals?"
"It's no secret that I disapprove of such relationships," Donald Maclay replied, never looking to where his daughter and Willow were sitting.
"So it's safe to assume that you disapprove of your daughter's relationship with miss Rosenberg?"
"Yes. I disapprove."
"I understand that you found out about your daughter's relationship when they were already living together."
"That is correct."
"Why do think she had not told you?"
"Because she knows I'd disapprove. I've only only wanted the best for my daughter. A good education, a prime apprenticeship and a stellar career."
"And, of course, a family. With another Reaper," Lindsey filled in.
"Exactly. Nothing but the best for my daughter."
"And do you consider miss Rosenberg 'the best' for your daughter?"
Donald Maclay fell silent for a moment and took a deep breath. "No," he finally said impassionedly.
"Could you elaborate?"
"The facts speak for themselves," Donald Maclay shrugged. "She failed to report miss Rosenberg to the Head Office, kept secrets from her and from us. She risked her career. I've told her on several occasions that this relationship could only end in pain for her and for miss Rosenberg. My Tara and miss Rosenberg are worlds apart, worlds that should never cross."
"No more questions," Lindsey spoke and Winifred took the floor.
"Mister Maclay," Winnie started. "Worlds have already crossed. Both Collectors and Harvesters live among mortals and are already socially and culturally affected by..."
"Miss Burkle," the Hortator broke in. "I've warned you both before. Policy is not to be decided here. Stick to the particulars of the case."
"I retract my statement and offer apologies to the Tribunal," Winnie sighed. "Mister Maclay. Do you love your daughter?"
Donald Maclay blinked. "What kind of question is that? Of course I do."
"I've been reading Tara's psychological reviews of the past several years and they say the same thing: that you've been pushing her very hard," Winnie said.
Donald shifted slightly. "Yes. I love my daughter and I want her to do well. I don't apologize for encouraging her to work hard and get the most out of her life and career."
"I'm not disputing that," Winnie said. "Is that why you convinced Tara to try out for Harvester training?"
"It was a good career path for her," Donald replied. "Better than staying a Collector. Higher salary, better hours, more prestige, more freedom."
"Would you say Tara was happy during her training days?"
"I would like to think so."
"That was not what I asked," Winnie said.
Donald sighed deeply. "No," he finally said. "In fact, I fear it drove us apart. Further apart than we already were."
"Have you seen much of Tara since she met Willow?"
"Not as much as I would have liked."
"Did she seem happier to you during these times?"
Donald Maclay sighed heavily. "Yes," he sighed. "She looked radiant, even. Happier than I've ever seen her. I've not seen her this way since..."
"I do not wish to discuss this in public, miss Burkle," Donald sighed heavily. "I ask that you let the matter lie, please."
The Hortator broke in. "You cannot, mister Maclay. This is Tribunal. I'm sorry, but you are required to answer the question."
"And your daughter's continued happiness might depend on it," Winifred pressed. "Please, continue."
Donald Maclay sighed deeply. "Do you have any idea what it's like to tell your two children, one eight, one six, that their mother is never coming home again? I don't wish that on anyone. Accidents do happen and in the real world, we Reapers are as fragile as the mortals are. Elizabeth was the most loving and compassionate woman I've ever known..."
"I'm sorry for you loss, mister Maclay," Winnie said truthfully. "How did Tara handle the news?"
"She was devastated, couldn't believe me at first. I think part of her died along with her mother that day. I don't think she was ever truly happy again." Donald sighed, this time looking directly at her daughter. "Until she met miss Rosenberg."
"Miss Rosenberg makes your daughter happy," Winifred frowned. "So why do you disapprove of their relationship? May I speculate? Your wife was a Collector, right? I assume there's another reason why you wanted your daughter to be a Harvester. Safety," Winifred concluded. "Harvesting is much safer than Collecting, because Harvesters tend to spend days, sometimes even weeks in an ethereal state, much more than the average Collector and generally their exposure to the mortal world is much smaller."
"There... there is that," Donald admitted. "C-could we not do this. Not here..."
"You must, mister Maclay," the Hortator place.
Donald Maclay sighed for a moment, looking his stricken daughter in the eyes from across the bench for a moment. "There's another reason. It became... more and more painful for me to watch Tara grow up. She... reminded me more of her mother every single day, from her small mannerisms to her looks. I could see her mother in her rare smiles and Tara has endless compassion and love, just like her mother. I... wanted her to change, I think, by convincing her to become a Harvester rather than a Collector. To become something else than her mother."
"Dad," Tara whispered softly and squeezed Willow's hand.
"To become something she's not? But do you deny that, since she has failed her Harvester exam, she has done very well for herself? She has a budding career in which she excels, a steady income, a good home and, to top it all off, a loving relationship. And you said yourself she's never been happier. You say you want the best for your daughter, then does this not quality as the best? Does miss Rosenberg really need to be a Reaper for Tara's life to be complete?"
Donald sighed and looked at were Willow and Tara were sitting, noticing that Willow was holding Tara's hand and kneaded her shoulder, while her daughter was looking at him with tears in her eyes, awaiting his answer.
"No," he spoke hesitantly. "Maybe not."
"Mister Maclay, my colleague asked if you approved of their relationship. Based on your answers to my questions, will you change your answer? If knowing that being with Willow makes Tara happier than she has been in years, do you approve of their relationship?" Winifred asked gently.
Donald thought for a moment, bathing the entire room in silence. There was a single cough from the audience, but nothing more until Donald spoke. "Yes," he finally said, barely louder than a whisper.
One member of the audience protested, however. "DAD!" shouted Donny. "You can't do this! You can't let them do this, come on! Look her her, she's dumb mortal. You're just gonna let this happen?! Let this Willow-chick be part of our family? No way, I won't stand for it!"
"Donny," Donald glowered before the flabbergasted Hortator could react. "Sit down!"
But Faith was way ahead of him. "HEADS UP!" she shouted and Donny turned toward her just in time to see the foot of a copper cordon holder travelling towards his face. With an audible clonk, the copper instrument collided against his forehead, knocking him a few feet back and into the aisle. There were startled murmurs everywhere when Faith stood over her victim, dropped her cordon holder, wiped her hands and gave Willow and Tara two thumbs up.
"Miss Lehane!" the Hortator responded angrily. "For this shameful and disrespectful act, I hereby order you removed from this Tribunal. Begone!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, gotcha, Horty. But it was worth it," Faith snorted and turned to Tara. "Good luck, T," she said while squeezing Tara's shoulder slightly. With that, Faith was escorted out of the courtroom by two bailiffs who also dragged the body of the unconscious Donny behind them.
"Yes, well," the Hortator sighed. "Recess. We'll continue in fifteen minutes."
"Dad," Tara said while she and her father were standing in the hallway. "Why didn't you tell me that you felt this way?"
Donald Maclay sighed heavily. "I suspected that telling you I wanted you to be less like your mother would do more harm than good."
"Dad, um," Tara said. "This is Willow. I'm, uh, glad you finally met."
Hesitantly, Tara's father extended his hand, which Willow slowly took. "Uh, pleased to meet you?" Willow probed.
"I suppose I am now," Donald Maclay shrugged. "Look, I suppose I'm sorry I let this come so far. And I'm sorry I haven't had Donny's head examined while you were growing up."
"We have a lot to talk about dad," Tara offered a half-smile.
"I suppose so," Donald Maclay sighed. "Now I've got to see to Donny. Apparently, somebody stole his robe and his wallet."
Recess ended rather quickly and Tara trembled when the next witness took the stand.
"Mort Ripley," Mort said calmly after he took the stand. "Harvester Overseer, L.A. region."
Tara squeezed her eyes shot. Would he tell? Because if the truth would come out... a Harvester sparing an assignment was the ultimate sin and the consequences would be so dire. Rationally, Tara knew he could not tell without implicating herself, but still...
"You were Tara's mentor during Harvester's training, right?" Winifred asked.
"That is correct," Mort confirmed. "Though I was convinced that Tara was not Harvester material from day one. I have found Tara to be a kind and compassionate woman, whose role should be a Collector. I have tried to convince Tara of this on several occasions, but she would not hear of it, and continued her training."
"Then came the day of her first assignment," Winifred asked. "Did you cut her loose?"
"I observed her, as is standard. I fear I cannot say more without breaking Mentor-Apprentice confidentiality, which I will not do."
Tara let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. She did not fear for herself, but some of the more zealous elements of the higher ups could have ordered Willow's soul to be harvested retro-actively, and that was something she could not bear to think of.
Lindsey was up next. "Mister Ripley," Lindsey smiled. "Tara's first assignment was in Sunnydale, right? Could be it be that she failed her assignment because she was distracted from her target? Could it be because she met Willow during her assignment?"
"No," Mort replied simply.
"Are you sure?"
"How can you be sure?"
"I observed her."
"But you could be wrong."
"You can be wrong, mister Ripley," Lindsey grinned like a shark.
"I was not wrong when I flunked you, mister MacDonald."
Lindsey balled his fists as he regarded Mort coldly. "Yes, you were, Ripley," Lindsey snarled. "No more questions!"
Willow looked up to Tara for encouragement when she took the witness-box. Ever since she was a child, she had always hated being the center of attention, but this time, she found herself strengthened by Tara's ever-loving smile.
Winifred was the first to speak. "Willow, this must be so very difficult for you. By loving Tara, you have come in contact with a world that you never suspected even existed. And now, this strange society is judging your love."
Willow nodded nervously in response.
"What does Tara mean to you?"
"Tara's my everything," Willow stated. "I won't let you take her away from me. I won't!"
"Could you tell me what happened when you discovered Tara's cloak?"
Willow took a deep breath. "I tried it all and everything got kinda wonky. I fell through the floor and it was really hard to breathe. When I finally got the thing off my back, I just was so scared I had to get out of there. I don't think I ever saw Tara there at first, I just bolted. And when I did come back, Tara had left. So I did everything I could to find her, to bring her back."
"And you did?"
"Yes," Willow said. "I don't think I can be without her anymore," she smiled, looking directly at Tara.
"Do you fear Tara?"
"Do you fear Death?
Willow thought for a moment. "Not anymore," she said after thinking for a moment.
No further questions.
Lindsey approached the box while Winifred sat down. "Miss Rosenberg, would you call yourself a spiteful person? The reason I ask, just imagine, hypothetically, you and miss Maclay break up. Would you try to hurt her? That is, would you, for example, sell your story to a magazine, or spread word about our society?"
Willow scoffed. "Tara and I are forever. And I am not spiteful! I mean, I've never done anything wrong in my life. I'm straight and narrow, well, except that I'm gay, obviously, so I'm probably more narrow than straight. Never committed any crimes, never cheated on a test, never even looked at anything remotely illegal. Unless you're talking about mp3's, those are sorta illegal. And, uhm, all those avi's and DVD's I've been downloading... I know it's wrong, but Tara and I have only a little money left after the bills are paid each month and it's so easy to succumb cause the connection is there and bittorrent is freely available. But never games. I never download games.... Oh, I can't lie, that only makes it worse. Games too, I download games too. And my Windows is illegal. And I've hacked maybe a dozen government agencies, and made life miserable for anti-gay websites in my RedBaroness days, and though that's technically illegal, I'm in no way apologizing for that."
"Miss Rosenberg..." Lindsey tried to break in.
"And this one time when I was fifteen, I always hung out with my friend Xander in the mall in front of the gym. They had this big window and you could see all the girls working out. I always denied it, but Xander wasn't the only one ogling the spandex-clad babes. Tuesday evening was always Stretch-Aerobics class. I'm very sorry for ogling, and I think it was illegal because I hadn't officially come out yet. And when I was sixteen, my friend Larry and I set up a paint-bomb filled with pink paint in our high school's Young Republicans Club lounge and let it go off when they were having a club meeting. Larry talked me into it, and... no, I'm not apologizing for that either. And when I was twelve, I..."
"We don't need your life's story, miss Rosenberg, I just..."
"Okay, so Tara made a mistake. But I made a mistake too, by running away. But we fixed everything! And you know what, I'm not a danger to your society! You're a danger to yourself! Tara never told me anything. I found out everything I needed to know about your Reapers on the net and in history books! That's right, plus, I hacked into your 'secured' computer system because you had an unsecured back-door in your system. I didn't put it there, I only made use of it. And if I had more time and a more powerful laptop, I could have done some real damage to your servers too! Face it, any idiot with a computer is a bigger threat to you than I will ever be. Because if I hurt you, I'd hurt Tara and that I will never do! So all this bullploppy about rules of dating is all nonsense! Because the clues are in the paintings, it's in the language, it's in history all in plain view! So what are you going to do, hm? Are you going burn all the paintings, shut down all the linguistic forums, destroy the internet? Cause there's nothing us humans like more than a solving a good mystery, even if the clues are tiny. And I know I'm channeling Captain Picard here, but I don't care! You're only hurting yourself... I don't care what you do, and I don't care what you say. I'm going to stay with Tara!"
The Hortator blinked for a moment. "That, um, was a highly articulate outburst, miss Rosenberg."
"I, uh, forgot what I was going to ask," Lindsey blew out a load of air. "I, uh, think all my questions are answered."
Tara had never been more proud of Willow until now. Her Willow had effectively taken over the entire Tribunal and hit her argument home with one Fancy Dan of a babble.
Willow and Tara sat in silence, merely holding each other tightly while the Tribunal deliberated. There was nothing more to say, all what was left to do was to hope.
"Hey, psst," sounded behind Tara. Both Willow and Tara looked over their shoulders to see... Donny? 'Donny' lifted his hood and revealed that it was Faith, who had apparently snuck back in wearing Donny's robe. Tara smiled in spite of herself, being so very grateful to have Faith's unconditional friendship.
The Tribunal returned from deliberation and handed the Hortator the form (in triplicate) that contained their conclusion. He frowned for a moment. "This Tribunal has decided in Case 103759-B and have ruled... inconclusive. Two votes in favor of the relationship, one against."
Tara squeezed Willow's hand.
"What does that mean?" Willow whispered. "Have we won?"
"No. The r-ruling has to be u-unanimous," Tara sighed while the visitors behind them murmured amongst themselves.
"Silence," ordered the Hortator. "We see no other recourse than to have Anubis, the head of miss Maclay's order, decide the outcome of this case."
A few moments later, two Reapers were carrying in an ornate chalice, engraved with all sort of depictions of violent and bloody death, and set it down in front of Willow. When Willow pulled her eyes away from the disemboweling immortalized in pewter, she studied the liquid inside. "It's, um, green and smokey and bubbly. I'm taking a bet that this is no dr. Pepper? Tara, what is this?"
"I... don't know," Tara said softly.
"Miss Rosenberg, this Tribunal requires you to drink from the chalice."
Willow crumpled her nose at the foul-smelling liquid. She carefully took the chalice in hand and regarded the contents once more. "Baby," she told Tara just before taking a big sip. "You owe me so many smoochies for this."
Willow fainted almost immediately.
I don't think I'm in Kansas anymore, Willow thought when she found herself floating in a searing grey mist, so think she could not see more than one foot ahead. There was a light in the distance and she felt herself being pulled towards it.
The mist seemed to clear up a bit, but she still couldn't see far ahead. Willow gulped when she saw a muscular man appear. He wearing a linnen loincloth and nothing else, but his most impressive feature was the smooth obsidian head of an emotionless jackal.
"A-are you Anubis?" Willow asked.
The jackal-man frowned and pointed at his head. "You're kidding, right?"
Willow bit her lip for a moment. "What is this place?"
"The Conduit," Anubis shrugged. "The place where the souls pass from the mortal coil to the appropriate afterlife. I serve as the gatekeeper. But that's one interpretation. Maybe you've simply seen to much episodes of Twin Peaks and are make this all up in a drugged up state. Wouldn't that be silly, hm? Well, I'm already wearing a diaper, I only need to start talking backwards. Kool! eht eulc! kees eht eucl!"
"Uhm," Willow rolled her eyes, wondering what kind of madness she'd stepped in this time around. Ever since she had met Tara, some amazing things had been happening to her. This was no exception.
"Right, all business then," Anubis motioned towards a large man-sized set of scales. "Time to weigh your Ka, Willow. Please step onto the right side of the scales when I tell you to." That said, Anubis placed a weight on the left side of the scales and motioned Willow to step on. With some trepidation, Willow did so, half expecting herself to fall down because the counterweight was so small. But, to her surprise, Willow did not move at all.
"Well, that's it," Anubis said. "You're Ka's been weighed. You've been judged worthy."
"That's it?" Willow frowned.
"That's it," Anubis replied.
"What part of 'That's it' don't you understand?" Anubis raised an eyebrow, which looked very, very odd to Willow.
"It's just that," Willow shrugged, "it feels kinda anticlimactic."
Anubis shrugged and pointed down. Willow was startled to see that the scales were precariously placed above a deep pit. Inside the pit, she could see an odd creature running around. It had the body of a leopard, the backside of a hippo and the head of a crocodile. When it saw that Willow had spotted it, it snapped at her for good measure.
"Well, if it's any consolation to you, if you'd been judged unworthy, you'd have fallen into the pit and Ammat would have eaten your soul."
Willow looked at the monster again and paled considerably. "I, uh, would have liked to have known that before I stepped onto the scales. Uh, so if I fell down there, it would have destroyed my immortal soul?!"
"Nah," Anubis scoffed. "Souls can't be destroyed. If you'd been eaten, your soul would simply have gone through the motions, so to speak. Think of it as a sort of purgatory."
"Oh. Oh... Ewww," Willow made a face. "But, wait a minute, I'm worthy? Does... does that mean Tara and I can stay together?!"
Anubis frowned. "Who's Tara?"
"You don't know?"
"Hey, I don't ask questions, I just weigh stuff," Anubis shrugged.
"So why didn't you... How come... I mean... Why did we have to go through all that emotional rollercoaster stuff and all the pain and anguish of that stupid Tribunal, worrying so much about being split up. I mean, here you are and you can just weigh me and decide in 5 seconds?"
"Hah!" Anubis crossed his arms. "It's just me, Ammat and Apepi over there by the watercooler. We have to process 150.000 souls every single day, seven days a week. We can't just drop everything for every Tom, Dick and Willow who happens to pass by, now can we?"
"I, um, suppose not."
"Besides, if those bureaucratic idiots up there get wind of how quick this weighing goes, they'll be sending down hundreds of people to get weighed each day. So, if anyone asks, time passes more quickly in the Conduit and we've actually been deliberating for a week, okay?"
Willow opened her eyes and found herself lying on the floor of the courtroom with her head on a soft pillow, and staring right into Tara's blue, loving eyes. Hm, and that wonderful smile, those gorgeous lips, those perfect sassy bre... Oh, bad Willow! There are other people here, doofus!
"A-are you okay, sweetie?" Tara said. "I was so worried."
"I think so," Willow said. "I still have all my limbs. And you still owe me loads of smoochies."
"Well, that settles that," the Hortator said. "Miss Rosenberg is still alive, so Anubis rules in favor of the relationship between miss Maclay and miss Rosenberg. Case cl..."
"WAIT!" Willow spoke up. "Um, after the week that it took Anubis to decide," Willow blushed slightly. "He, um, also said that Tara and I have been under a lot of emotional distress lately. So he ruled that the camp of the loser should finance an all expenses-paid trip to a location of our choosing."
Lindsey scraped his throat. "This is highly unusual..."
"Would I lie about something like this?" Willow said, being careful to avoid eye-contact with everyone in the room.
"Alright, done," the Hortator pronounced. "Case closed!"
"WOOHOO!" shouted Faith as she threw off the cloak and flipped off Lindsey before running to her friends. "Drinks are on me, I just had a small windfall coming my way."
Tara had been in a blissful state all day. There would be no more fears now, because their relationship was now officially approved by the Head Office and because she higher ups had wanted to use this Tribunal to set an example and lost, they wanted this whole case buried as quickly as possible, so any inquiries in Willow's past were out of the question forever. They were free.
They still had to fill out close to two-hundred forms each. Four stacks lay in front of them as they sat on their couch in their comfy living room, while Willow, who was suffering from an acute case of writer's cramp, rested her head on Tara's shoulder, who was still filling in forms. They'd been filling out forms all day, and were determined to get it done and out of the house. They'd gotten very far, and were close to the end. Close to freedom.
And then there was the payrise, also a good thing. Tara would earn an extra fifty cents an hour. Because she was on call basically 24/7, that would mean an extra 340 dollars in the kitty each month, money that she and Willow could desperately use. Winifred was nice enough to invite them to a party, but they gratefully thanked her for her efforts and said they preferred to be alone for a while, which was true.
Still, there was one thing that Tara desperately wanted to know.
"Willow?" Tara asked while Willow had resumed writing on the forms. "What's Anubis really like?"
Willow frowned. "You don't know?"
"No," Tara replied. "Sweetie, I'm not sure if you know this, but the number of Reapers that actually met him can be counted on one hand. Usually, there's just another Tribunal if the first one fails to give a unanimous ruling. My goddess, you've been to the Conduit! That's profound!"
"Well," Willow shifted slightly, pressing her cheek against Tara while rubbing her lover's tummy ever so softly. "He was sorta laid-back. But I don't if what I saw was real. I could just have been trippin' on that green stuff they fed me, you know? Maybe it was LSD or something."
"Anubis never mentioned an all-expenses paid trip, did he?" Tara offered a knowing half-smile.
"You know that, I know that, but the Hortator didn't know that," Willow giggled. "Baby, that was the last form you just filled out," she added before letting out a yawn.
"It's over," Tara smiled. "It's really over."
"I really want smoochies now, but... I'm sleepy, can't see straight and lost all feeling in my hand."
"Me too," Tara replied. "Snuggles now, smoochies in the morning?" Tara suggested.
"There'd better be smoochies in the morning," Willow said, not being too tired to kiss her girlfriend on the lips.