Back to the grind, Tara thought after stepping out of the shower. She had had a good night's sleep, and was ready to face another day. After getting dressed, she took a moment to gather her laundry from the clothesline. She wouldn't have time to iron and fold them today, so she left the hamper standing next to her couch, minus her cloak.
Drat, Tara sighed when she examined it. It didn't shrink this time either.
To her delight, she felt that the fabric softener had done its job quite well. She let the side of her hood slide across her cheek for a while. Hmmm... Nice, fluffy cloak.
She lit a cinnamon scent-candle and fixed herself a sandwich for breakfast. Today, Tara had slept late. Willow had early classes, and she knew there wouldn't be much opportunities this morning. Being the technophobe she was, Tara wasn't in any hurry to sit in on any classes called 'advanced computer networking' or 'advanced Java programming', even if cute Willow was sitting in the classroom.
Until fairly recently, Tara thought that Java was an island. She remembered scratching her head, thinking how in the world someone could program an island of all things. You visit islands. You find islands on a map... but programming islands? Weird... Maybe it's a course for programming on Java. But why would they teach that in America? More weirdness...
She dismissed the Java discussion, poured herself another cup of tea and spent some time reading the newspaper. After reading about current events, skimming the opinion page and enjoying Ziggy and Marmaduke's latest antics, the cuckoo clock, which had been a gift from her grandfather, alerted Tara that Willow's classes were ending for the day.
Tara blew out the candle, wrapped her cloak around her body and pulled her freshly sharpened scythe from the umbrella-stand. A second later, the ethereal Tara was standing outside Willow's classroom, just in time to see the red-headed girl stepping out, headed towards the library. Tara followed and spent a hour watching Willow scribbling on her notepad while she was being flanked by two piles of books on the table. Two piles that easily dwarfed her.
Normally, sitting in a quiet library and not being able to touch or read the books in her ethereal form would have been boring, but for Tara, watching Willow study was invigorating. Tara noticed that Willow's lips moved ever so slightly whenever she read or whenever she wrote something down, as if she was reading to herself while working.
Tara had lost track of time when Willow closed her notebook and slid it into her bookbag. The red-haired girl put each and every book she had used back in exactly the same spot where she had found them and slung her bookbag over her shoulder, carrying it as an impromptu backpack. Tara happily followed her outside, onto campus.
Tara's head suddenly snapped to the left while Willow continued walking. The young Reaper quickly clicked the end of her scythe on the pavement, causing the folded blade to spring into action. Tara's will caused the blade to be engulfed in a sickly red glow, just before she slashed it across Willow's back.
Willow looked stricken for a moment, and stopped dead in her tracks. Behind her, several books fell to the ground.
The red-haired girl blinked for a moment, then slowly turned around. "Oh, forgot to close your bookbag again?" Willow told herself. "Nice going, poop-head."
Just then, a group of four jocks on mountain bikes rounded about the corner, zooming over campus with an incredible speed. Standing where she was, they barely missed Willow by a hair.
"WATCH IT, GEEK!" one of the jocks shouted back at her angrily, while one of the others almost ran over another girl who was crossing the walkway.
Tara smiled to herself and clicked her scythe to the pavement again, folding away the blade against the hilt. It wouldn't have killed her, but if they'd hit her, she could have been really hurt or have broken a bone or two. Thank the goddess I was here.
Willow seemed to realize that too, judging how pale she had become and how she was shaking slightly. Tara felt her heart melt. She wanted to throw off her cloak, take Willow into a fierce hug and tell her everything would be alright. But she knew she couldn't do that, sadly.
"JERKS!" shouted a familiar sounding voice. Buffy, the voice's owner, ran up to Willow, and for a moment Tara considered Buffy's lungs had to be twice the size of her body. "YOU JUST COME BACK AND TRY DOING THAT TO ME!"
Buffy's expression softened and she squeezed Willow's shoulder for a bit, looking the red-haired girl in the eyes. "You okay, Will?"
"Y-yeah," Willow stammered. "I t-think so. T-thanks Buff. Those j-jerks... If, if my books hadn't fallen... Oh, god, I don't wanna think what would have happened if my books hadn't fallen. They would have run into me, and I wouldn't have liked that much, I think. I mean, big mountain bike slamming into little me, moving metal versus bone isn't really a contest... I mean, I have been drinking a lot of milk lately, and calcium is good for your bones, but... I don't think that extra bit calcium can compete with a 7 foot jock speeding downhill on a moving chunk of metal, cause if it did, I'd drink enough milk to turn into supergirl. Oh, god, I almost had rubber tire-imprints on my forehead."
Goddess, she's so cute.
"Come on," Buffy said, guiding the stricken Willow to a small wooden bench that was nearby. Because Willow was dangerously close to hyperventilating, Buffy took to the task of gathering Willow's fallen books.
Willow sat there for a moment, managing to calm herself enough to check her bookbag. She held it in front of her and frowned, while Buffy returned her books to her.
"You put way too many books in that bag, Will," Buffy said. "That's why they fell out."
"No," Willow whispered. "They always fit. But... look," she said, holding up the bookbag. The little rope that held her book-bag hung limply from the bag.
"The rope snapped," Buffy said. "Lucky you."
"I didn't snap," Willow replied. "See? It's... cut. Clean slice. What could have done this?"
Buffy frowned. "Mosquito's?" Buffy offered. In response, Willow cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. "Basque separatist mosquito's?" Buffy tried again.
Willow took her bag in one hand and stood up, taking the books Buffy had picked up under her arm. "I think my guardian angel helped me again," Willow smiled.
"Thanks," Willow whispered, and Tara felt slightly uncomfortable because Willow was looking at the exact stop where she was standing. And from quite a long distance away.
After Buffy made sure that Willow was alright, she had returned to her classes while Willow left campus. A few minutes of walking later, with Tara trailing her, Willow arrived home.
Tara watched her as she fed her fish and then made herself a sandwich. After enjoying lunch, she fixed her favorite bookbag by removing the cut rope and replacing it with a new one. Then, Willow left her home and locked the door behind her.
A few minutes later, Willow arrived at 'J. Calendar's Computers', Sunnydale's thriving computer store where Willow had a part-time job. Tara watched Willow wave hello to an older raven-haired woman behind the counter, who was explaining the vagaries of something called a 'wireless router' to a customer, a subject to which Tara zoned out as soon as several obscure terms were thrown back and forth.
Tara felt a bit claustrophobic by being surrounded by so much technology. There were computers on display, components on display, monitors on display, laptops on display... All those terms and brand-names... Nvidia, Ati, Windows, CTX, Msi, Illyama, Logitech, Router, Network, SoundBlaster... I feel like I've stepped into my grandfather's cuckoo-clock! Tara supposed some people enjoyed what computers had to offer, but she preferred good old-fashioned pen and paper. At least pen and paper couldn't crash, be infected with a virus or lost on a harddrive somewhere.
Tara followed Willow into the back of the store. There were plenty more components, packaged or not, and ready for use. Willow sat down behind a large workbench. On it lay several tools and quite a few computers were placed there to be subjected to Willow's tender and loving care.
"Alright, little computers," Willow said to herself when she took a clipboard which hung from the side of the workbench. "Dr. Rosenberg is on call. Let's see what's troubling you today."
Tara looked over Willow's shoulder for a moment as she read the clipboard. Apparently, a few computers were infected with a virus. Another one wouldn't start anymore. Yet another one needed something called an 'OS' to be reinstalled, whatever that meant. One system had to be completely assembled and prepped for use.
Willow snorted for some reason, and Tara read why. On the clipboard, there was a message written by someone called C. Chase. It read : "Dear computer-nerd person. Desktop color totally clashes with Ie icon color. Plz change before I, like, vomit. Thanks."
Willow continued reading, shaking her head. "Principal Snyder wants an extra harddrive," Willow said to herself. "As if we don't all know that the only things on his computer are Windows XP and 300 Gigabytes of porno."
Tara watched Willow work with fascination. Willow hooked up three computers to a series of overhead TFT monitors mounted to the workbench and started a virus-scan on all three. While the scan was running, she opened up a forth computer. Inside this computer, she put some sort of thin silver box, connected it to some sort of grey ribbon-like wire and closed it again.
After making sure the computer she had opened up actually worked, she returned to the three computers that were being scanned and checked their progress. Like a true detective, Willow investigated the one computer that wouldn't boot up anymore. She opened it, connected and disconnected components, determined to find the cause by all means necessary.
Tara truly enjoyed watching Willow work. The way Willow operated belied a logical and ordered way of thinking. Willow listed possible causes and moved down this list as she worked. She tried different combinations of hardware and settings, sure of herself and her ability to find the cause of the problem.
"Ah-hah!" Willow grinned after she had finally found the cause and, seconds later, the XP logo was splashed across the screen. A soft smile crossed Willow's features. "There isn't a bug in the world that can defeat Willow Rosenburg," Willow grinned. "Come on, try and defeat me. Cause you can't. Because you're just a bug, and I'm Willow Rosenburg, high-hacker-priestess of power!"
Tara giggled for a moment. All the insecurities she had seen in Willow before were gone now. She was in her element and enjoying every minute of it. Already, Willow was starting work on yet another computer.
At five o'clock, Willow had worked through the entire clipboard and was ready to go home. And, though Tara had been very happy to simply watch Willow, she was quite ready to leave this temple to electronics behind for today.
"Jenny," Willow smiled as she stepped into the front of the store. "I'm done for today."
"Really?" the woman called Jenny replied. "Everything?"
"Three viruses, one assembly, one new HD, one mysterioso non-start-uppo, one OS install, one CPU failure, two new videocards installed," Willow listed proudly.
"The desktop color change?" Jenny grinned.
"Duh," Willow rolled her eyes.
"What color did you give it?"
"Willow," Jenny smiled. "You're a godsend."
Willow blushed slightly and didn't dare to meet Jenny's eyes. "Uhmm..." she stammered. Tara gathered that Willow wasn't used to getting compliments.
"See you next monday, Willow," Jenny smiled. "Have a nice weekend."
Willow, with Tara trailing behind, returned home. While Tara sat on the couch, Willow played a computer game for a moment and then fished a book from her bag and started to read.
Wow, that must be an engrossing read... Her nose is almost touching the paper...
While Willow read intently, Tara sat down on the couch next to her. After a few moments, she inched closer to her... and closer... just a little closer... Until they were almost touching each other. While Willow read, Tara slid her arm on the top of the couch, thinking how nice it could be to have Willow resting her head on her shoulder while she read.
When the clock struck six, Willow suddenly stood up, startling Tara. Willow held the book to her chest and put on her coat to go outside.
Tara followed her outside, only to be completely horrified to find that Willow still had her nose buried deeply into the book without paying any attention to her surroundings. And, at the moment, her surroundings were heavy afternoon traffic. A large red SUV was coming around the corner, bearing down on Willow who was just crossing the street.
Tara only had a split second to act. She raised out her scythe and pointed it right at the traffic lights. The blade was engulfed in a red glow as the mechanism shorted out, turning all lights green at once. The red SUV was suddenly intercepted by another SUV, which rammed itself into the red car's side, saving poor Willow from being splattered all over the super-sized windshield.
But that wasn't the end of it. Thinking they could get on their way, all drivers who were eager to get to home after a long day of work, had put the pedal to the metal all at once. Tara had to act quickly yet again and held out her scythe, a blue light engulfing the blade, creating an unseen protective barrier around all of the drivers. And it was just in time, because from zero to ten seconds, the crossroad had turned into a cacophony of crashes, grinding metal and malfunctioning horns. Tara breathed a sigh of relief as Willow reached the other side of the road, completely oblivious to the destruction she was leaving behind.
Wow... that must be a really good book... Tara blinked.
Many cars had been turned into barely recognizable shapes of metal. One of the cars had crashed into a fire-hydrant which was spilling its high-pressured contents into the air. The occasional hood-cap rolled away from the crash-site and all around Tara, people were crawling out of the wrecks and started to yell at each other. Though Tara was ethereal and could not be seen or heard in any way, she whistled conspicuously as she walked away, trying to look innocent.
The young Reaper caught up with Willow just as she turned into the alley she often used as a short cut to get to the Espresso Pump quicker. Right next to the alley, a burly and unsavory looking middle-aged man looked at Willow for a moment, and then started to follow her.
As a Reaper, Tara had a sixth sense in matters of impending Death. And Death was very much in the air at the moment. The burly man gained on Willow and reached into his coat and pulled out a shiny object, which Tara could clearly see was a knife.
Goddess... He's gonna do her over! Tara realized.
Tara's mind was assaulted with images of things to come... The burly man grabbing Willow's arm... The burly man demanding Willow to hand over her wallet... Willow being too frightened to respond... The burly man losing his patience and covering Willow's mouth... The cruel light of the moon reflecting off the knife as he's plunging it into her chest again and again and again... The burly man grabbing Willow's wallet and leaving her bleeding to die a lonely, painful death in a cold, wet alley... The burly man cursing when finding out Willow had only brought enough money for her evening meal and a latte... Willow letting out her last breath, her final expression locked in one of utter fear and pain...
Tara felt an infernal rage burning inside of her. $6.50. He's going to murder Willow for a lousy six bucks! Willow's last moments were etched in her mind. So afraid... so alone...
She gripped her scythe tightly and ran into the alley. Still in her ethereal form, she skidded across the pavement and ended up running right up behind the man, who was walking faster and faster to catch up with Willow before she'd exit the alley again.
No. No! Willow won't die this way!
Tara ran into the burly man, passing right through him. Between him and Willow, Tara turned around. If the burly man could have seen her, he would have been subjected to a determined and savage look in her eyes. Tara screamed from the depth of her lungs as she held her scythe with both hands and slashed at the would-be mugger. The scream went unheard, and the blade passed harmlessly through the man's body.
But looks were deceiving. The mugger's eyes grew wide for a moment. Then all strength suddenly left his body. He dropped the knife and clutched at his chest. After a moment of silent agony, he sank to his knees and fell face-down into a puddle, letting out his final breath.
Tara stood over her victim, trying to grasp her mind around the scope of what she had just done.
The man's soul finally rose from his body, and finally the reality of the situation sank in.
What have I done?!
She had killed.
All her life she had learned Death was a natural part of life. Today, purely driven by instinct, she had taken the life of someone whose time had not yet come... to save the life of someone who was living on borrowed time.
It made no sense. No sense at all.
Tara was no stranger to death. She'd been a Collector for years and had visited sites of natural disasters and wars to gather the souls of the fallen. She had apprenticed under Mort for six months, and in that time, had seen him Harvest souls of people whom the Powers-That-Be had decreed were ready to die. She had even harvested herself, under very controlled conditions. But now... she had taken the life of someone whose time had not yet come... A serious breach of Reaper protocol.
She did the only thing she could do: as if on auto-pilot, she took out her container and gently picked up the man's soul, suddenly fighting the urge to crush the fragile orb with both hands. And that made her feel even more guilty.
Tara looked over her shoulder and could only smile when she saw Willow passing the corner, unaware of the violent end she had been spared.
Six bucks... for six lousy bucks...
She felt anger surging within her again. I had to choose between this scum's life and Willow's... Not a choice at all. No, not at all, Tara thought. She took consolation in the fact that this man's afterlife wouldn't be pretty.
There wasn't much else that she could do. Having collected the mugger's soul, she followed Willow, doing her best to keep her mind focused.
"Oh my god, someone call an ambulance," she heard someone shout out behind her. She fought back the tears that stung in her eyes as she left the alley.
"Will," Xander crossed his arms. "Put that book away. Dinner now. Boring school stuff is for monday, not friday nights."
"Uh-huh," Willow said, still reading in 'The Wonderful World Of Linux'.
Xander sighed. "Come on, Will. Don't tell me you love Linux more than you love me."
Willows looked up from her book for a moment.
"I'm thinking about it."
Xander rose his eyebrows. "Come on. I mean, Linux?!"
"I'm still thinking about it."
Xander placed on hand on his forehead, closed his eyes and pointed at finger at Willow, trying to hex her. "Choose Xander. Choose Xander. Choose Xander."
"I dunno," Willow smirked. "I mean, Xander is nice, but Linux has all these great extra features. And it's a lot more user friendly."
"Breakin' my heart, Will," Xander laughed.
At that moment, Dawn burst through the door and looked around frantically. When she saw Willow sitting at the table with Xander, she visibly relaxed and strolled to their table. "Willow, thank god, you're alright!"
Willow blinked for a moment. "Uh, aren't I usually?"
"Didn't you hear about that big traffic accident?" Dawn panted as she slid into the booth next to Xander. "It was all over the news. I was really worried because it happened right in front of your apartment, so I ran all the way here to see if you were here. I'm glad you're okay."
"Whoa," Willow replied. "R-right where I live? Are you sure?"
"You really didn't know?" Dawn asked.
"No," Willow said horrified. "God, did anyone get hurt?"
"No, but a lot of Sunnydale's finest cars'll end up being crushed into neat little cubes. And that includes Sunnydale's one and only police cruiser," Dawn panted.
Xander snorted. "Looks like the Grim Reaper's having a day off."
"Lucky them," Willow said.
"And I'm just silently wondering what the Grim Reaper having a day off would look like," Xander smirked.
"He'll be the pale guy by the pool wearing a hooded hawaiian shirt," Dawn nodded.
"Holding the inflatable scythe."
Dawn suddenly grinned and inched a little closer to Xander. "Did you bring it?"
"Uhm, Dawn?" Xander said. "The DVD is mine. Why would I bring it to the Espresso pump if I'm going back home after having dinner?"
"Oh, yeah," Dawn thought for a moment. "Sorry, I was just getting excited about the blood, guts and gore and brains splattered all over the wall..."
Willow shook her head. "Xander, if Buffy finds out you let her little sister watch that horrible 'Zombie Flesh Eaters'-movie, it'll be your brains that'll be splattered all over the wall."
"Hey, call it an educational experience," Xander smirked. "Besides," he said, putting an arm around Dawn, "Anya and I have to do something to get all that Harry Potter crap out of Dawnie's system."
"Draco Malfoy is cute," Dawn said, quite on cue.
I killed for her...
Sitting at the booth next to them, in their ethereal forms, were Mort and Tara, watching Willow and Xander chat. Their scythes were placed next to their seat, balanced precariously against the potted plants that were standing there.
Tara was more than a little surprised when she found Mort waiting for her at the Espresso pump and was deadly ashamed when she had to explain what had just happened. Fortunately for her, Mort was in a humorous mood and had interrupted Tara before she could tell her grim tale.
"And here I hurried over to congratulate you. I have to say, Tara," Mort said with a sardonic grin while holding up the contained soul and scrutinizing it, "when you miss, you miss spectacularly."
"Y-yes. I m-m-missed," Tara spoke timidly, not wanting to get into the real issue of the mugger's death. She felt numb... so very numb.
Mort snorted. "This fellow sure wasn't worth his weight in gold. Just look at this poor excuse for a soul. You can see the corruption of multiple cold-blooded murders staining it. See those dark spots?" He raised his finger, going into full teaching mode. "When you have harvested ms. Rosenberg's soul, you should take a moment to compare the two. You'll see how pure her soul is. It'll shine brightly, not glimmer dimly like this one."
Tara looked at Willow for a moment. And said nothing.
"No worries," Mort said before handing the container, with the soul of the mugger inside, back to Tara. "These things happen. There'll be plenty more opportunities for harvesting ms. Rosenberg's soul. Still, I suggest you don't put it off for too long. The deadline for this harvest is approaching fast... pardon the pun."
"N-no, I w-won't," Tara replied.
Mort bent forward slightly, so that Tara could almost see his whole face underneath his hood... Almost. "You seem rather nervous," Mort spoke gently. "Are you having trouble with your assignment?"
"N-n-n-no," Tara stammered, trying to calm herself but failing miserably. "No, I'm n-not. I... I'll be fine. I c-can do it."
"Good," Mort said. "Let me give you one last piece of advice, though. Black cloak, black scythe, white sneakers. Not a good combination."
"Oh," Tara said and looked down at her feet.
After leaving the expresso pump, Tara decided to go back home to think. But, against all odds, she missed Willow. She wanted to be near her again... but at the moment, she just couldn't. Not after what had happened.
She lay on her bed the rest of the evening, staring at the ceiling. Sometimes crying. Once in a while, she turned on the tv and flipped through some channels. She had hoped cute Koala-bears on the discovery channel could banish Willow's smile from her mind, but the sight of Steve Irwin being viciously mauled at by unexpectedly not-so-cute Koala-bears didn't put her in the right state of mind either.
This is insane, thought Tara as she finally forced herself to get off her bed and went into the bathroom. She let the faucet run and splashed some water in her face. I haven't been looking at opportunities to end Willow's life all day. I saved her life... three times... I killed for her... Three times I could have had an easy opportunity to claim her soul. Three times!
I'm a Reaper... A Harvester..., Tara thought and took a good hard look at herself in the mirror. I can be as ruthless as any other Harvester! ANY OF THEM!
After seeing her own tear-streaked face in the mirror, she suddenly wasn't so sure of that anymore.
I'm Tara Maclay. I'm death incarnate! A Harvester of souls! Say it!
"I'm T-tara M-maclay," Tara tried to sternly tell her own reflection. "I'm d-d-d-death in-n-n..."
Dammit... Tara cursed and felt tears welling up in her eyes. Suddenly she saw a scared, insecure girl looking back at her from the mirror, wearing a cloak that would never, ever fit.
Again she heard the scornful voice of her father in her mind. Tara, why can't you be more like your brother? Her father couldn't have hurt her more even if he'd have plunged his scythe right into her heart.
She heard it again and again. Tara. Why can't you be more like your brother?. Tara. Why can't you be more like your brother?. That scorn. The rejection. You're too soft. Just like your mother.
This must stop...Tara looked in the mirror again and saw determination, even if it was for just a moment. It's going to stop! She rushed into the living room, grasped her cloak and scythe before running out the door.
Willow lay sleeping peacefully in her bed, unaware of the fate hanging over her head. The bedroom was bathed in the light of the full moon. It reflected off Tara's scythe as she held it above Willow, poised to strike.
This was the best way. A simple cardiac arrest in her sleep. No pain. She'd have gone to bed and would wake up in Elysia, where she belonged. She'd never know what had hit her. No pain. No regrets. No remorse.
Like Faith said, Tara whispered. Think band-aid. Let's get it over with.
The blade of Tara's scythe emanated a sickening red glow. Tara gritted her teeth and prepared the strike. She hoped it would finally ease these strange feelings and thoughts that had been plaguing her so terribly. She only needed to strike and it would all be over. She'd be free.
She raised the scythe, ready to slice it straight through Willow's heart.
Just then, Willow stirred in her sleep, rolling around until she lay on her back.
A smile... caused by a pleasant dream.
Be strong, Maclay.
So serene. So peaceful.
The scythe cleaved through the air.
Willow mumbled in her sleep.
At the very, very last moment, Tara yanked her scythe away just before it would strike Willow's heart. The scythe clattered to the floor, unused and slowly lost its sickeningly red glow.
Tara sank to her knees and felt hot tears streaking down her cheeks.
I can't do it...
She continued crying silently in her ethereal state, merely watching Willow sleep. Tara was hit with a terrible sense of self-loathing, far, far worse than what she had felt when she had ended the mugger's life. How could she even have considered killing her... her Willow?
What's happening to me?
To make her breach of Reaper protocol complete, Tara slowly removed her hood, causing her to phase into reality. She knelt at the side of Willow's bed and slowly caressed Willow's cheek, really touching her for the very first time. So soft. Her skin is so soft...
"Don't worry," she whispered and gently pressed her lips to Willow's forehead for a brief moment. "I'm never going to hurt you. I'll keep you safe."
And finally, everything made sense.
"I love you..." Tara whispered to the sleeping Willow.
Three simple words. And yet they explained every single thing that had been happening to her.
And Tara didn't shift back into her ethereal form. Tomorrow, she'd have to face the music... but that'd be tomorrow. This night Tara simply sat there, keeping vigil over the sleeping Willow, and dreaming of things that could be.