A soft but persistent murmuring in her ear roused Tara from a fitful sleep. Her eyes drifted open lazily and met a nest of auburn curls, shining like polished copper in the early morning light falling across the bed. She could feel Willow's chin tucked snuggly into her crook of her neck, her lips muttering nonsensical phrases scant millimeters from Tara's bare neck.
Mmmm... Willow, she thought dreamily, a moment before her eyes shot fully open and she came slamming headfirst into consciousness. Oh my god - Willow? Willow - in my bed - with me!
Tara stifled the impulse to leap immediately off the mattress, knowing it would wake the other woman. Taking several calming breaths, the agent quickly assessed her situation.
Okay, I'm on my back, and she's kind of... pinned against me... can't um move my left arm... definitely pinned... so that must be her arm over my stomach, making me feel all warm and safe and - FOCUS Maclay! - okay, maybe if I just um pick her arm up a little...
As she attempted to do so, the redhead frowned slightly, mumbled sleepy protestations, and tightened her grip on Tara's side.
Oookay... that's not gonna work, and... could she be any cuter? Goddess I could get used to this.
Tara shook the thought of her head and decided to try a different tactic. She reached up to grasp her pillow while at the same time inching away from Willow. After several minutes she managed to completely extricate herself, using the pillow to replace her body under the redhead's protective limb. She lingered at the side of the bed a moment, watching the other woman sleep, the pillow now firmly clutched against her body.
She's so beautiful... I can't believe she kissed me... I can't believe I kissed her - what was I thinking? Oh, but that kiss! No, I can't let that happen again - not until this is over. The thought had barely entered her mind when it was replaced with the harsh realization that once this was through, Willow would most likely want nothing to do with her.
Knowing it was only a matter of time before the redhead woke up, Tara hurriedly grabbed some clothes and retreated to the bathroom to dress. She ducked her head back into the bedroom to ensure that the other woman was still asleep, then crept carefully out of the house and to her car. She winced as the engine roared to life, the sound unnaturally loud in the early morning quiet. She spared a single glance back at the front window as she drove away, exhaling in relief at not seeing anyone there.
Several hours later Tara watched as Willow, shoulders hunched, stepped out of the house. The agent had parked her car several streets over and walked to a nearby café to wait for the redhead to leave for school.
I should have stayed away until she was gone... she looks so sad, so hurt... well, why shouldn't she? You could have at least left her a note. Coward.
Tara waited until Willow had turned the corner on her way to the bus stop before entering the house to continue her search. Several fruitless hours later, she flopped down onto the couch with an exasperated sigh.
This is ridiculous - there's nothing here. I should just call Riley and-
Soft blue eyes turned hard and icy as the thought of her boss, and the previous day's altercation, came to mind.
"This your car? Get in."
"Look, Tara, if I said something-"
"Just shut up and get in the car... what are you doing here, Finn? I mean, I know you think I'm incompetent because I'm a woman, but do you realize how much you just put my investigation in jeopardy? What the hell were you thinking?"
"I just wanted to check up-"
"Check up on me?! I don't need you to check up on me! The only thing I will ever need from you is to back me up if and when I specifically request it, and to stay out of my way until then!"
"You need to watch your tone Agent Maclay."
"Hey, I'm not the one here who almost blew another agent's cover, so don't lecture me about my tone. If you ever pull another stunt like this, I'll-"
"You'll what? Run tell your boyfriend and have me booted down to Private?"
"Boyf- what are you talking about?"
"I know there's something going on between you and Travers - I've seen your file. No one ever heard of you until six months ago when Quentin Travers signed you up for covert ops. Are you telling me it's a coincidence that when he transferred here you were the only agent he brought with him?"
"You know Finn, I don't know if you're out of your mind or just way out of line, but don't you EVER bring up my personal life again, not my family, not my friends, not even anyone I might have once stood in line next to at a movie. Clear?"
Tara quickly came to the conclusion that the last thing in the world she wanted to do right now was talk to her boss. A glance at her watch revealed that it was already after 1:00, so she hastily grabbed her copy of Willow's class schedule and set out.
After parking her car in a remote section of the lot and orienting herself, Tara walked toward the mathematics building. Studying the schedule in her hand as she walked, she didn't notice a man standing on the footpath until she'd bumped into him.
"Ooof- oh, I am so sorry - are you okay? I w-wasn't watching where I was g-going, and- oh! I spilled your tea," Tara bowed her head in remorse.
"It's quite alright - no harm done. I dare say I if I hadn't come to such a sudden halt it never would have happened. Really, there's no need to apologize."
Tara's embarrassment soothed by the man's kind words, she raised her head to look at him. He was in his mid-forties, average height and build, with short light brown hair flecked with gray. He smiled warmly as he pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the spilled tea off of his cuffs. In his tweed suit, bow - tie, and glasses, he seemed every bit the image of a British college professor.
"Is there something I can help you with, dear?" he asked, noticing the campus map in her hand.
"I was looking for the math classrooms."
"Ah, yes, just keep to the right up ahead, and the path will take you there directly. Good afternoon."
Once she'd located Willow's classroom, Tara moved to the far end of the hall to ensure that the redhead would not spot her. At 2:00 classes were let out and the hallway filled up with people, but Tara found it simple to spot Willow by her hair. Weaving carefully through the milling students, the agent trailed her suspect out of the building, back down the footpath, past the library, across the campus, and finally out onto the streets of Sunnydale. As they left the university behind, Tara felt a vague sense of unease begin to grow in the pit of her stomach.
Well, she's not spending her time in the library, that's for sure. Perhaps a friend's house to study - but then why not say so?
Twenty minutes of walking later, Willow turned at the entrance to an apartment building in one of the town's older residential sections. The structure was built in a sort of Mission style crossed with an Italian villa, with each apartment opening onto a sunken central plaza, complete with a fountain. Tara gave silent thanks to the god of surveillance that there was plentiful foliage to conceal her presence. From the top of the stairway she watched as Willow crossed the terrace and knocked on one of the doors. When it was answered a moment later by the man in tweed, the agent felt her stomach drop into her feet and her blood run cold.
It's him! - oh, Willow - there has to be a reasonable explanation for this - oh god, I have to report this - orders - I can't believe - it can't be - she can't be...
She watched in stunned silence as the two greeted each other cordially, but with a slight hint of - of what?... apprehension? He looks upset, and she-
Once the door was closed, Tara crept carefully down the stairs and to the window, determined to get a closer look inside. She held her breath as she observed Willow round the couch and take a seat, where she began to unload books from her bag. Tara thought back to the pile of textbooks she'd seen on the dining room table earlier. These looked different - older. The redhead unpacked a thick notebook that she handed to the Englishman, who flipped through several pages and nodded occasionally while Willow talked to him.
Tara could take no more. Her head was spinning as she backed away from the scene in front of her. Only her training gave her the presence of mind to check the name on the mailbox before she fled from the building. She half ran, half staggered back to the campus to retrieve her car, knowing she had no choice but to report her findings to Finn.
And then what? It still doesn't necessarily mean - sure, he's British, but that doesn't mean... it's a university, there's probably plenty of people from all over the world there. I'll just... go home, and when Willow gets back, I'll ask her where she was. If she tells me the truth, I'll- figure something out.
Her decision made, Tara drove back to the empty house to wait. Despite her rationalizations, her gut tightened in fear at the thought of what she would have to do if Willow lied to her.
It was after 6:00 before Willow arrived. Tara had been pacing for hours, working herself into a nervous frenzy, but when she heard the door opening she froze. From where she stood by the icebox she could see the redhead in her peripheral vision, tentatively walking toward her. Before reaching the kitchen, however, the other woman turned and walked into her room. Tara heard the sound of a key entering a lock, the pull of a drawer, a heavy thump, the scrape of the drawer closing, and the removal of the key.
The desk drawer... her bag... the books... notebook... that's why it was empty - she had them with her!
The puzzle solved gave Tara no comfort, as she realized she had to find a way to get back into that drawer - when it wasn't empty. At the sound of footsteps approaching, she spun around to face Willow, who smiled shyly and opened her mouth to speak.
"So, did your class run late?" Tara inquired before the redhead could begin.
"Uh, yeah. You know professors - no respect for anyone's time but their own. Tara, I-"
"W-well, of course, it's not so bad if it's an interesting class. W-which class was it?"
Willow frowned as Tara continued to direct the conversation away from the kiss the night before. The agent suppressed her emotional turmoil as she watched the other woman's consternation play across her face.
"It, um, it was uh, Differential Equations. Tara, can we-"
Tara quickly sidestepped the redhead and walked purposefully toward the door. Her eyes narrowed a fraction as she gazed back at Willow, who stood with a perplexed, forlorn expression on her face.
"I um, I have to go. I'm m-meeting my brother for dinner. I may be late." Tara opened the door and paused briefly. Looking out into the darkened street, she spoke softly. "Don't wait up."