Once she'd made it off of the porch, Willow practically floated through the day. She skipped to her classes whistling happy tunes and beamed at everyone she met. She was the perfect picture of a young woman in love. She marveled at the glorious fall day as she bought a coffee and settled into an outdoor seat at the school café. Caught up in identifying frolicking woodland creatures in the large fluffy clouds, she did not notice Giles' arrival until his insistent throat clearing roused her from her reverie.
"Giles! Hi! Isn't it a beautiful day?"
"Actually, it's quite cold for this time of year, and those clouds look rather ominous. And I would appreciate it if you'd call me Professor Giles when we're on campus. I don't believe that a modicum of respect would be too much to ask for."
Willow squinted at her mentor and laughed.
"Sorry Professor grumpy pants. But I still think it's a lovely day, so stop raining on my parade."
"You're uncharacteristically cheerful this afternoon, Willow. Did you finally speak to your parents?"
"Um... er... not so much," Willow stammered, avoiding the Englishman's disapproving glare. "I am going to tell Tara though - tonight!"
"My, uh, housemate. Giles, she's so amazing - she's sweet and funny and smart and she kinda looks like Veronica Lake, only prettier-"
"Yes, that's all well and good, Willow, but don't you think you should let your parents know your plans? You will be registering for the spring semester soon, and they're bound to find out then."
"I know, and I will Giles - I promise."
"Excellent. So I'll see you at 2:30?"
Willow's face went blank for an instant, then she slapped herself on the forehead.
"Books! I left them at home!"
"Really Willow, that's not like you at all."
"I know, I'm sorry. I was just a little... err... distracted this morning. Oh! Why don't you come over to my place and we can work there?"
"Very well," he replied with a sigh, "2:30 - sharp."
At 4:30 Tara trudged up the steps to Willow's house. Her brief meeting with Riley had turned into an all day strategizing session with the entire department in preparation for Friday night. Riley shone in the role of tactical commander, decisively placing each of his agents like pieces on a chessboard. Two men were assigned to watch each of the four exterior doors at the Sunnydale Lodge; half a dozen more would be inside, undercover as servicemen; the rest of the unit - save two - would establish a perimeter around the Lodge, waiting for Finn's signal to sweep in. Graham had been assigned surveillance duty on Giles, and would continue to tail the Professor, while Tara would stick with Willow.
The team was set to rendezvous on Friday afternoon at 3:00 pm. Since Graham and Tara would not be able to leave their suspects, they went through an additional debriefing. As she prepared to leave, Tara was called back into Riley's office.
"You wanted to see me sir?"
"I understand you declined a firearm when you began this assignment, Maclay."
"Yes s-sir. I don't feel comfortable with them, and I didn't think it would be necessary."
Finn looked at Tara as if she'd insisted she didn't intend to breathe anymore.
"Yeah, well, this is a team operation now, and I won't have any member of my team going in unprepared."
Riley pulled a cloth bag out of his desk drawer and laid it on the surface in front of her, next to a small box. The smell of oil reached Tara's nostrils, and she cringed.
"You do know how to shoot, don't you Agent Maclay?"
"Yes sir, I did receive my certificate of marksmanship," she replied with just a hint of sarcasm.
"Good," Finn stated, not noticing the other agent's tone as he sat down and turned his attention to other matters. "We're done here."
Tara didn't respond as she reluctantly picked up the gun and box of shells, placed them carefully in her purse, and exited the office.
Now, standing outside Willow's house Tara shifted her shoulder uncomfortably under the unfamiliar weight of the weapon. The idea of bringing it into the house unnerved her. It was the ultimate proof of her official position, and their relationship to one another. She was the law, Willow the suspected criminal, and if it came down to it, Tara would be expected to use it without hesitation, even against -
That's never going to happen, Tara thought, shaking the image out of her head. Making a quick decision, she hurried to her car, placed the revolver in the glove box, locked everything up tight, and headed into the house.
"Tara! You're home!"
In her exhaustion, the blonde had walked right past the dining room, where books and papers were strewn all over the table. She smiled at the redhead, then peered past her to the familiar figure seated at the table.
"I want you to meet someone. Tara, this Mr. Giles; Giles, this is Tara Maclay."
"N-nice to meet you Mr. Giles," the agent said, hoping the man wouldn't recognize her. Even as the thought formed in her mind, she could see he was studying her face intently.
"Yes, nice to- I'm sorry, but haven't we met before, Miss Maclay? You look awfully familiar."
"No sir, I don't think so," she replied, ducking her head slightly.
"Hmm. Yes, well, my mistake. Willow, I believe we've done enough for today. I'll see you tomorrow?"
"Sure," the redhead responded, eager to be alone with Tara. The moment Giles was out the door, Willow threw herself into the blonde's arms in a tight hug.
"God, I missed you so much."
Before Tara could reply, the redhead's lips were on hers, smothering her words. Just as suddenly as the kiss began it ended, and Willow took a step back while maintaining her hold on the blonde's hands.
"Tara, I have to tell you some things, but I thought we could have dinner first, cause it may take a while... and it's nothing bad... but I want to be totally honest with you - not that I've been lying... well, maybe a little... it's just, I haven't really told anyone... but it's important to me that you know... because I - I trust you, and I don't want there to be any secrets between us."
Tara felt her heart leap into her throat. Her excitement at Willow's decision to tell her what was going on was palpable, but tempered by the knowledge that she could not yet reply in kind. The two raced through dinner, both anxious for the forthcoming conversation. After washing the last of the dishes, Willow again took Tara's hands and led her to the table.
"Do you know what this is," the redhead asked rhetorically, sweeping a hand in the direction of the books. "This is my future, Tara. I'm changing my major - I haven't wanted to be an engineer for a while, but it wasn't til I met Professor Giles that I realized what I did want. I'm gonna be an anthropologist!"
"That's wonderful, sweetie, but... why all the secrecy?"
Willow led them into the living room, where they sat facing each other on the couch.
"I know it seems silly, but you'd have to know my parents. When I first went to college I think they assumed that I was just going in order to snag a husband. Hey! No laughing! Anyway, when they realized that wasn't the case, they became adamant that I study something practical. Soon it was all they ever said about me - how their daughter was going to be the 'greatest woman engineer ever.' It's like it became my whole identity to them. And I was good at it, but it never felt right - kinda like dating boys," she added with a devilish grin.
"Oh, so you were good at dating boys," Tara smirked in return, raising an eyebrow.
"What? NO! Not good - bad, very bad! And not boys... boy... just the one... and now... well... now I only wanna date you," she added in a whisper.
The blonde took in the sight of Willow: head slightly bowed, searching green eyes full of hope. Tara slid across the couch and leaned towards the other girl, kissing her softly; lips delicately tracing the outline of the redhead's mouth before continuing across her cheek, up her jaw, and finally to her ear.
"I want that too, Willow."
The redhead's arms came up around Tara's back and held her in place as she continued talking. The blonde rested her head on Willow's shoulder and sighed contentedly.
"I realized that I didn't want to know how things work, I want to know how people work. You know... how beliefs are created, how they pass from one group to another, why they change. Giles introduced me to all this amazing information about pagan cultures, and how they were affected by the institutionalization of religion. Did you know that many of the people charged with witchcraft in the Middle Ages were what we would now classify as midwives? Just because they didn't bow down to the big men in the village, they were persecuted horribly. And there's so much more. But I've been spending a lot of time helping Giles do research for a book he's writing - not being in class like I told you. I'm sorry I lied."
Tara smiled and turned her head a fraction to place a quick peck on Willow's neck.
"S'okay sweetie. I get it - doing something new can be scary."
"It is. I only hope my parents will understand."
"Bu you don't think they will?"
"They still think I go to Temple regularly. If they knew - especially with everything going on in Europe - I think they'd assume I'm worshipping Satan or something."
"Hmm... I can see why'd you'd be nervous, but aren't you selling them a little short? You're studying a subject, not rushing off to join a coven of witches, or calling on the powers of darkness to wreak unholy vengeance- you're not, are you?"
The redhead rolled her eyes and poked Tara in the side, causing the blonde to giggle and squirm, much to Willow's delight.
"I mean, if it's that important to you then you just have to be honest, and hope they'll understand why you're doing it, and also why you couldn't tell them. And if they really care about you, they'll accept it, and still love you." The agent paused as her own words echoed in her head.
"You really are wonderful Tara, you know that?"
Tara lifted her head to look into green eyes, glistening with unshed tears.
"Sweetie? Are you alright?"
Willow nodded emphatically as the blonde reached up to caress a soft cheek.
"Just happy. Oh! Wait here - I'll be right back."
The redhead extracted herself from the couch and went into her bedroom, reappearing several minutes later with a handful of snapshots.
"These are some friends of mine," she began as she handed Tara the stack. Over the next several hours, Willow recounted numerous stories of Xander, Anya, and Oz, inadvertently settling the blonde's unspoken concerns towards the latter. When the last photo had been remarked on, Willow stood to put them away, then paused and held her hand out to Tara.
"Come to bed?" she softly asked. "I know we can't - I just want to wake up with you, if that's okay."
Tara made no verbal response - none was needed. She simply took the offered hand and followed, her heart happy and her mind at rest.