At the crack of dawn, a young Harvester-in-training knew that her life was in shambles. Tara had stayed with Willow all night, quickly shifting into her ethereal form when Willow started to wake up. All moments of bliss were replaced with the crushing reality as soon as she had left Willow's house and returned home, and had found Mort already waiting for her.
Tara sat on her couch, knowing full well that she had failed her first assignment. Her father would be so disappointed and her brother would never let her hear the end of it... Faith... Would she ever understand? Have I lost her friendship?
But nothing was as bad as the thought that she would never see her Willow again. She could no longer keep back the emotions storming inside of her, and finally let the tears stinging in her eyes flow freely. She cried quietly for while, letting it all out.
Mort was sitting on Tara's couch in her apartment. She had expected her mentor be angry and to give her a stern lecture. Instead, Mort had given her a hankerchief to dry her tears.
"There is no shame in being a Collector," Mort said gently. "I've been observing you from the sidelines. It wasn't hard to notice that you were more interested in keeping ms. Rosenberg alive than actually killing her."
Tara looked at Mort, stricken.
"Yes, I said 'killing her'. Harvesting is just a euphemism, Tara. Oh, we can tell ourselves we're doing the work of the Powers-That-Be, that their time has ended and that there's nothing we can change about it. But when it comes down to it, Harvesters are ruthless executioners. We must emotionally detached."
Tara hung her head in defeat. She knew wasn't ruthless. She knew wasn't a wanton killer. And she certainly knew she wasn't emotionally detached.
"I've trained enough apprentices to know that you've joined the Harvesters for the wrong reasons," Mort said. "I'm surprised you lasted as long as you did."
"W-willow. You picked h-h-her?"
"To be your first harvest, yes," Mort nodded. There was almost kindness in his voice as he lay his hand on Tara's shoulder. "It would have been easier if your first assignment had been a complete scumbag, would it not?"
Tara nodded weakly. "M-maybe."
"Sadly, scumbags are more the exception than the rule," Mort said. "We Harvesters have to be able to live with ourselves in spite of that. What have to be able to end the life of a scumbag in an alley, a mother in car, a child in the house, a baby in the crib, a soldier in the fox-hole. No matter the target, no matter the situation, no matter the method. Harvesting is a scared duty to Fate. We have to be able to move from one assignment to the next without so much as batting an eyelash about it. This way of life is not for everybody, and there is no shame in that... no matter what certain a bleach-blonde brit tends to say."
"I'm not s-s-strong enough," Tara admitted.
Mort nodded for a moment. "Based on what I have seen," Mort said, entering 'official' mode, "I will contact the Head Office, and recommend that you be ejected from the Harvester Corps, effective immediately. Your title as a Collector will be re-instated, and you will report to the Head Office for re-assignment."
Tara nodded weakly. What was there to say to that?
"You can try joining the Harvester Corps again in two years, but... Tara, your personality simply isn't suited for it. And you have to consider for yourself if such changes are desirable for you."
"They... They're not," Tara shook her head "But..."
"Don't worry," Mort said. "I'll give you a favorable review, so you should get a good assignment. And... I'll talk to your father, explain what happened. There's a good chance he'll respond... better... if the news comes from me."
Tara nodded her thanks and bowed her head low. "I only w-wanted him to be p-proud of me," she said. "H-he's the last family I've got left." Donny doesn't count...
"Alright," Mort started as he stood up and took his scythe, but not before giving Tara a supportive pat on her shoulder. "I'll take care of things from here. You just get some rest now. A couple of days off should do you good."
Mort spirited away, leaving Tara sitting on the couch. Despite her failure, Tara felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Deep down, she had expected for fail, but never had wanted to admit it to herself. And Willow. She just couldn't kill Willow.
Suddenly, Faith's head popped around the corner. "Cripes, I thought Lurch would never leave."
Tara was startled. "F-f-f-faith? What are y-you doing here?!"
"I was, um, inspecting your fridge... Yeah, inspecting and all, don't mind the empty beer bottles... So, I was inspecting when I saw professor Snape dropping out of warp in your living room. Decided to hide out in the kitchen," Faith nodded.
Tara smiled in spite of herself. "H-how much did you h-hear?"
"Enough to know you need a hug, T," Faith smiled and took her friend in a firm embrace, which she welcomed. Tara lay her head on Faith's shoulder for a moment, grateful for the support.
"Aren't you... d-disappointed I didn't m-make the H-harvesters?"
"It would have been really fun, you know?" Faith grinned. "The two of us working together and finding all these creative ways to off people? But... "
"A-are you still my f-friend?" Tara asked, trembling slightly.
"Are you kidding?" Faith smiled supportingly. "I need you, T. You're the only thing that's been keeping me sane the past few years. Not to mention fed properly," Faith snorted. "You take care of me. Now let me take care of you for a change."
"Taking care?" Tara raised an eyebrow. I'll take care of things from here, Tara heard Mort say in her mind. Finally these words hit home. Tara gasped, and literally jumped out of Faith's arms, tumbling across her coffee-table to reach her own cloak.
"T, what are you doing?"
"Willow! Mort! WILLOW!" shouted Tara.
"Yeah, Mort's gonna off Red. What of it?" Faith raised an eyebrow. "You... you don't want Mort to kill her, do you?"
Tara was struggling with her cloak, but Faith caught the vigorous shaking of her head. While Tara made a grab for her scythe, Faith grabbed her by the shoulder. "Go save her, T," she whispered before Tara teleported herself to Willow's home.
Faith grinned for a moment and then strolled into Tara's kitchen. "Well... it's about T found someone to dance the watusi with. Ohhh, beer!" she said to herself, after claiming her prize : a six-pack of Budweiser.
Tara appeared inside Willow's living room. After a frantic search of the house and backyard, and finding neither Willow nor Mort, she ran outside. Tara knew she couldn't afford to trip over her robes, so she held her scythe in one hand and folded up the bottom of her robe to carry it in her free hand. Walking like that, she sped alongside the streets, through the alley and skidded to a halt in the Espresso Pump, and almost slammed right into the counter.
Still, no Willow.
Tara let both her hands slide through her hair underneath her hood. Okay, Tara, think. THINK!
She closed her eyes, trying to remember... It's saturday... Yes, the camping trip! She's going camping with her friends.... BUFFY'S HOUSE!
Just as she was about to run out, she cursed at herself for a moment. Tara, you idiot! Use your cloak!
Tara closed her eyes and tried to focus on the Summers residence. Nothing happened. Feeling desperation grabbing her by the throat, Tara focused again, harder this time. She opened her eyes, and saw she was still standing in the Espresso Pump.
I can't concentrate, Tara thought. In order to teleport, she needed to concentrate and focus. And now, Tara was simply too shaken and distraught to focus properly. So, she did the only thing she could...
With her heart pounding in her chest, she ran through the streets of Sunnydale, hoping against all hope that Willow would still be alive when she'd find her.
In front of Casa de Summers, Xander was helping Willow load her many bagpacks in the trunk of a black car. A short blonde girl stood at the side and frowned at Willow.
"Okay, Wills," the blonde girl tapped her toe. "We're going on a weekend camping trip. That's all of two days, not fifteen years."
"I like to be prepared," Willow shrugged, and nonchalantly tried to keep her backpack out of view.
Buffy and Xander shared a look and then advanced on Willow. "Say, Will..." Xander started, and when Willow turned to Xander to listen to him, Buffy snatched the backpack.
Willow turned around again, a horrified expression on her face. "Buffy, no! I..." she tried to say, but it was too late: Buffy had opened the backpack and fished Willow's laptop from it.
A blush crept over Willow's face. "Uhm... it fell in completely accidentally-wise?"
"Allow me," Xander said, to which Buffy nodded. Xander scraped his throat. "Bad Willow! Bad!"
"I'll lock this in my closet so that Dawn won't play with it," Buffy said as she walked to the house.
Willow pouted for a moment, but cheered up when she found a small packet of animal crackers at the bottom of her now empty backpack. "I wish I would have known. I could have used the extra room to pack more mosquito-spray."
Xander smirked. "It's not as if we'll need any. We'll both be a mosquito-free zone with Buffy around."
"Yeah," Willow laughed while Buffy got back from the house. "All the mosquito's go after you all the time, Buff. You must have sweet blood."
Buffy put her hands on her hips and managed an impressive glare at both her friends. "Yeah, that's me. Buffy the mosquito magnet."
"Every time I see Buffy running around in a cloud of mosquito's, shrieking away like a cheerleader, I can't help feeling a little bit rejected," Xander said. "I mean, I've got blood too. Is it not good enough for those little bloodsuckers? Maybe I should just eat more sugar."
"And on that note," Willow grinned and opened the packet of animal crackers. After sharing the bounty with her friends, she started to nibble on a hippopotamus.
"Too bad Anya bailed," Buffy smirked. "I was kinda counting on her to keep the mosquito's busy while I run away."
"Anya and the rough outdoors?" Xander rolled his eyes. "Not a good combination. I almost had her convinced to come along, but... There's bunnies out there, Buff, and Ahn just won't risk it."
The three friends continued to chat, unaware of the ethereal figure standing behind Willow. The blade of his scythe hovered dangerously above Willow's head, bathed in a sickening red glow.
Willow suddenly grasped for her throat, desperately gasping for air. She lost the strength in her legs and fell right into Xander, while her face started to become as red as her hair.
"Buffy!" Xander called out in panic while holding Willow tightly. "She's choking!"
Mort held out his scythe, getting ready to sever Willow's lifeline and harvest her soul. Suddenly, something bumped into him with great force, causing him to drop his scythe. Two cloaked figures struggled and rolled over the curb and came to a halt somewhat away from Willow and her friends.
Mort quickly jumped to his feet to face his attacker.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Mort challenged as Tara blocked the path between him and Willow. Tara looked over her shoulder for a moment, and saw Buffy trying to perform the heimlich on Willow. So far without results.
"I was expecting you to fail," Mort said. "I wasn't expecting... this," he pointed at his scythe lying next to a Willow whose friends were fighting for her life.
Tara raised her scythe, getting ready to strike if need be. "You can't do this." Behind her, she could hear Willow fighting for her life. It broke her heart.
"I can and I will," the now scythe-less Mort gritted his teeth. "Now stand aside and let me do the job you couldn't do."
"No!" Tara challenged again. "It's... it's.... It's n-n-not her time yet!"
Mort bristled. "That is not your decision to make, Tara. The Powers..."
"I don't care!" Tara replied, tears rolling over her cheeks. She was no less determined. "They can't have her! I won't let them or you take her!"
She turned back to keep an eye on Mort, then looked back to see Willow finally coughing up the piece of animal cracker that had become lodged in her throat. Willow was coughing violently for a moment, taking a few deep breaths while Xander was clapping her on the back.
Tara felt such a relief wash over her. She's safe... Oh, thank the goddess, she's safe.
She turned back to Mort, just in time to see him fade out of existance. Too late she realized that he was behind her now. Tara felt something bump against the backs of her knees, literally swiping her feet from under her. While falling, a quick jab to her stomach knocked the wind out of her. In the end, she found herself panting on her back with the sharp blade of Mort's scythe at her throat.
No, Tara closed her eyes. She'd lost her scythe and was completely at Mort's mercy. Forgive me, Willow. I've failed you. The only thing Mort had to do to end Willow's life was to slide his scythe away, hold it over his head and chop it right into her body. Unless...
Tara grabbed Mort's scythe with both hands and held it with firmly in place, pressing against her own throat even more. It was a gamble... The only way Mort could free his scythe was to slice it sideways, straight through Tara's neck.
Mort tried to pull his scythe free, but Tara held it firmly in place. Realizing the only way to free his scythe was to kill Tara, Mort loosened his grip somewhat.
"Have you gone rogue?" Mort asked Tara calmly.
Tara blinked. Rogue? How could he think that? As people with the power over life and death, having such power had a tendency to go to someone's head. A rogue Reaper was someone who broke all ties with the Head Office or started to show erratic behaviour, which included going on an unauthorized killing sprees or... attacking other Reapers. Oh, Tara thought.
"Tara, answer me!" Mort said, more urgently this time. "Have you gone rogue?!"
Tara shook her head slightly, feeling the sharp blade of the scythe still pressing against her throat. "N-no," she finally whispered. "No, I haven't."
"I didn't think so, Tara," Mort said, relaxing and easing way his scythe slightly. "But I wanted to hear you say it."
Mort offered Tara a hand, which she tentatively took. With some force, he hoisted her to her feet. The elder Reaper looked back at Willow, who was being offered a sip of pepsi which Buffy had taken from the icebox.
"You seem to have ruined my harvest," Mort crossed his arms, and considering he was carrying a scythe, it make him look very ominous. "Care to explain what the hell you're doing?"
"I just... couldn't let you kill her," Tara said bowed her head. All cards revealed and in the open. "I... I love her. I don't want to see her hurt." There... it's out.
Mort fell silent for a moment... then he started to rub his temple underneath his hood and sighed very heavily. "Selfish brat," Mort spat. "This girl's soul is meant for Elysia. Are you really that selfish that you would deny her the eternal happiness in the heavenly afterlife that she has earned?"
"Ask her that question," Tara challenged angrily. "Ask Willow if she wants to leave her life and her friends behind. Ask Willow if she thinks if the world'll be a better place without her! Ask Willow if she wants to die choking on a piece of cracker!"
"You love her enough to attack me," Mort stated calmly. "You love her enough to betray your oath, to go against the wishes of the Powers. Do you love her enough to risk being declared a rogue and be locked up for the rest of your natural life?"
"Yes!" Tara replied, not even needing time to think about it.
And then something happened that surprised Tara to no end. Mort's angry grimace actually turned into an expression that held a hint of a smile. "And you said you weren't strong enough. We could all learn something from your strength. Your father is a fool."
Buffy had run into Willow's apartment to get her a glass of water. The red-head sat in the backseat to recover and slowly put the glass to her lips.
"Sure you're alright, Will?" Buffy asked. "That looked really serious."
"Uh, I'm fine. Me tough Willow," Willow smiled and banged a fist on her chest in mock-fashion. "Just a slight case of cookie in lungs. Oh, god, just think what would have happened if I had died. How embarrassing that would be? Imagine the police breaking the news to my parents. 'Yeah, your spaz of a daughter killed herself by eating a cracker. Oh, by the way, here's the Darwin Award she's won'."
"Yeah, the eulogy alone," Xander said, clearing his throat and taking a dramatic pose. "Here lies my friend Willow. She died the way she lived : choking on an animal cracker."
"If it's all the same to you," Buffy smiled. "I'm glad you didn't die, Will. Black pants makes my butt look big."
"Looks like your guardian angel is slipping, Will," Xander said. "Maybe you should take her back to the store and trade her in for a new one. Do you still have the receipt."
"I dunno," Willow looked away for a moment "I just feel I'm still alive because of... her."
Buffy put her hands on her hips. "Hello?" she pointed to herself. "Heimlich girl here! God, don't I get any credit at all?"
Willow shook her head and rewarded Buffy with a hug.
"On that note," Xander said. "Car's packed. Let us be off to see the wizard!"
"Yeah, I need a heart!" Willow proclaimed.
"I don't know about you, but I could really use a brain," Buffy said.
"Oh, crud," Xander grimaced. "Why do you guys always make me be the cowardly lion?!"
"She doesn't even know I exist," Tara said sadly as she and Mort watched the car drive off.
"And if you have any brains in that skull of yours, you'll keep it that way," Mort said. "Reapers and mortals aren't supposed to mix."
Tara and Mort remained silent for a while. A lot had happened just now, after all.
"You wanted to kill her by making her choke on a cookie?" Tara finally spoke.
Mort sighed. "As opposed to gas? Garbage disposal? Ceiling fan? Exploding Expresso machine? How many times do I have to tell you young people to keep things simple?"
"I was fooling myself," Tara shook her head.
"We still have a bit of a problem."
Tara and Mort fell silent for a moment.
"There might be something I can do about it, though. Give me a few minutes... I know what you're going to say, Tara, and I am not going to end Willow's life when you're not looking. The deadline is past now anyway."
"Well, it seems we've reached a bit of an impasse," Mort said, sipping his mocha in the Espresso Pump. Earlier, he had Tara take off her cloak, run into the Espresso Pump to buy two cups, run back to the alley, shifting into ethereal form and running back inside where Mort was waiting for her, leaving Tara to wonder why Mort simply wouldn't take off his hood every once in a while.
"You won't let me harvest ms. Rosenberg's soul, yet the Head Office demands that I bring one in. How do you suggest we solve this, hm?" Mort nodded.
"I've got a s-soul here," Tara said and fished the container with the mugger's soul out of her cloak.
"Yes," Mort said. "That's what I was thinking too. They want a soul, they'll get a soul."
"Won't they k-know?" Tara asked. "I mean..."
"Please," Mort said simply. "Those bureaucrats don't know how to find a hole in the ground even if they'd tumble into it. I chose your assignment, so nobody knows about ms. Rosenberg's case except me. I will write-up a new report, and a new file for Ernie McKraken..."
"Sorry?" Tara asked.
"Ernie McKraken. That's the name of the man you killed."
Again, Tara felt the guilt constrict around her heart. She never realized until now that the man who had tried to kill Willow actually had a name. And probably family, loved ones...
"I know how you feel," Mort said softly.
Is he reading my mind? Can he even read my mind?
"I'm just one of the biggest Blues Brothers fans there is," Mort sighed. "I was heartbroken when the Head Office made me harvest John Belushi."
"Anyway," he continued. "It shouldn't be too hard to convince the clerks that your assignment was to end Ernie's life instead of ms. Rosenberg's. I'll call in a couple of favors at the Head Office to get have taken off the death-list and have them write it off as a clerical error. Happens all the time."
Tara felt a relief that was beyond description. That would save Willow from the Head Office. That left only... "The Powers..."
"Ah," Mort said, fished a file-folder from his cloak and lay it on the table. Tara examined it briefly. It was sealed, had a red border and the words 'Classified. Top level authorization. Eyes only' stamped on the back. "We are not supposed to have these, but the Head Office has an obsessive compulsive desire for having everything in writing. It actually happens quite often that a Harvester misses his or her deadline. More often than the Head Office would care to admit. If that happens, we need to know the reason the Powers-That-Be wanted a person dead, so we can... work toward this after the fact."
"Isn't this sorta... illegal?" Tara replied. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. All her life she'd been taught the Head Office was the epitome of efficiency. Certainly Mort had told her negative stories about the Head Office, but until now, she'd always thought he'd been exaggerating. Surely things couldn't be so messy that just anybody could walk in and take a peek at things they weren't supposed to take a peek at..
"It's completely illegal, unethical and breaks just about any rule that the Powers-That-Be laid out for us," Mort snorted. "Also, it's the Head Office's own fault for leaving these folders lying about for everyone take a peek at. Apparently they couldn't spare a budget for locks on their file cabinets, but they can afford a luxury solarium on the top floor. More than one Harvester has taken a look at these files when they've taken too long."
"But... the 99.8% proficiency rating?" Tara blinked.
Mort fell silent. Remained still as a statue for a while, and then... "HAH!" he exclaimed so loud that it startled Tara. "I thought young people are supposed to rebel and question everything... yet every single one of you slings the bullcrap that the Head Office shovels for you. Seriously, Tara, 99.8%? We'd be lucky to get up to 75% on a good day."
Tara nodded briefly and looked at the folder. "Maybe... the Powers knew this was going to happen. Maybe they knew you'd pick that folder and that I couldn't go through with it. And that I'd fix whatever they wanted to be fixed, no matter if Willow were to die or not. I mean," Tara continued. "Why else would Willow's life be endangered three times yesterday, if the deadline for her Death was set today? That must be it. The Powers knew all along what was going to happen."
Mort fell silent again. "HAH!" he exclaimed, even louder than before. "Ah, the naivete of youth. The Powers simply aren't smart enough for that, kid," he snorted. "You'll find that out as you'll get older. Seriously, what you just said only happens in bad fantasy novels. It was pure coincidence. The Powers don't 'see' everything, thank Death."
"Oh," was all that Tara could reply to that, having her belief-system shaken again. But, truth be told, it had happened to her so many times this week this really didn't matter all that much anymore. But there was simply one thing she had to ask : "Why are you doing this for me, Mort?"
"Because you're the only apprentice I've ever had that never made fun of my name behind my back." Mort simply stated. "Now. Take a look at this folder. It only tells us the reason... not the reasoning," Mort said and slid the folder to Tara. She took the folder and opened it. In it, she found all the information she had already been given earlier, with the same cute picture attached to it. But there was another page in this file, listing the deadline of assignment and reason for being targeted, which Tara read.
Tara felt her blood run cold. "They..." she almost snarled. "They want her dead for... this?!"
"Yes," Mort said simply. "Believe me or not, I've read reasons that are even more mundane than this one. Granted, like I said, we don't know the reasoning behind the reason. You could be saving countless of lives by sacrificing one."
"This... this is so s-s-s-stupid!" Tara almost shouted. "W-why? Why does Willow h-has to die because she..."
"Why do the Powers-That-Be do anything?" Mort interrupted. "They just give the orders and we carry them out. That's the order of things."
"I don't believe this," Tara shook her head again.
"Believe it," Mort said and took the file back. "I'll return this. And remember what I said : don't get involved with this girl! A Reaper and a mortal in a relationship? That's asking for trouble. It'll only end in sorrow, mark my words!"
Buffy kept her eyes on the road as she drove her mothers over-sized black SUV. She had her seat raised as far as she could while still keeping her feet to the pedals, and still she was just barely looking over the dashboard. Fortunately for Xander and Willow's state of mind, the dessert road was completely empty.
"So far so good, Buff," Xander smirked, riding shotgun next to Buffy. "You haven't hit a single deer yet."
Buffy shot Xander a dirty look. "For the last time, Xander, it wasn't my fault! I didn't hit that deer, that deer hit me."
"Cheer up, Buff," Willow said from the backseat while snacking on the last bit of a chocolate bar she had packed for the trip. "At least we had a great dinner at the campfire that weekend."
Xander smirked as he watched across the desert. "Don't worry, Buff. We still have to drive 40 miles before we even see the forest. You still have plenty of time to trash the car before then."
It was not a surprise that Xander was then on the receiving end of a playful slug to the arm. Unfortunately, Buffy had to take one hand off the wheel to do that, causing her to lose control of the car for a moment. The oversized SUV swerved over the road and shook violently when two wheels ground the dirt next to the asphalt. Willow, properly strapped in with seatbelts, let out a small cry when she shot to the side, causing her empty candy-wrapper to fly out of the open window. Eventually, Buffy got the car under control again.
"Okay," Xander gulped, trying to regain his composure. "Sorta spare underpants time now, Buffy."
"Guys," Willow said. "My candy-wrapper blew out the window. Could we stop? It's not bio-degradable plastic and that's bad for the environment."
"I don't think we'll ever find it again, Will," Buffy said and made a move to look over her shoulder into the desert. "Besides, I can't park anywhere here."
"You can't park anywhere period, Buffy," Willow smirked.
"Buff, eyes on the road!" Xander spoke in near-panic. "Will? Please tell me you're planning on getting your driver's license soon. Buff just took another year off my life."
While the car, with the bickering friends in it, was driving along, Tara phased into reality and watched it drive off into the sunset. The candy-wrapper Willow had let blow out of the window lay at her feet.
The candy-wrapper would blow across the desert in the wind for a while, until a gopher would finally decide to use it for nesting material. There it would lie for hundreds of years, long after the gopher's nest collapsed. Several thousands of years later, after the Earth's ecological collapse had made life impossible, an earth-quake would bring it back to the surface. The plastic candy-wrapper would be blown across the Earth-surface, carried by the 400 mph storms for several months until it would finally land near an off-world expedition.
Ever since humanity had fled their dying planet, they had established many off-world colonies. A small group of archeology students would return to the dead husk that used to be Earth on a training dig, sheltered from the violent storms by their mobile base camp. When the eye of the storm would be over the camp, the students would go out. One of them would find the remains of the candy-wrapper, a small torn piece of plastic covered with barely identifiable symbols.
The professor would bring it back to Alcone Borealis, one of the smaller Earth colonies. At the local university, fierce debates would ensue about the significance of this find, and the meaning and purpose of this mysterious artifact. The fierceness of these debates would leak into the general population, fueling the flames. Soon enough, old grudges and forgotten arguments would mix with the discussions, rekindling old fears and grudges. Escalation would be swift, and, in the end, war would break out between several groups... and two days after the war would start, Alcone Borealis would become the graveyard of its entire population of 25 million.
Fleets sent by the other colonies would investigate, and would find no apparent cause for this war. Hard-liners in several of the sovereign colonies would see this tragedy as an opportunity to adopt a more totalitarian rule and grab power in three of the most powerful colony worlds. Other, smaller worlds, would band together to oppose them, so that the situation would become ever more threatening. Finally, the new allied totalitarian colonies would throw a match into the powder keg when they invade a smaller colony to gain a strategic advantage.
The fires of war would burn across no less than 25 of the 31 colony worlds, would last 55 years and cost the lives of over 80 billion people, seeing the totalitarian colonies as the victors and throwing humanity into an oppressive, dystopian regime for the next 30 generations. And all because Willow let a candy-wrapper blow out the window.
Or at least that would all have happened if Tara hadn't grabbed the candy-wrapper and stuffed it in her pocket. Tara didn't know what tragedies she had averted by this simple act, she only knew that the Powers-That-Be had wanted her Willow dead because of something as trivial as letting a candy-wrapper blow out the window.
I can't believe I actually wanted to be a Harvester, Tara gritted her teeth. This is the work I'd be doing? Killing people for letting candy-wrappers out of the window? What's next? Slaughtering children for finger-painting on the wrong piece of paper? Is that a 'noble duty to Fate' all the Harvesters rave about? I'm going back to being a Collector, no matter what my father thinks. At least that's honorable work.
But then, she felt just how exhausted she was. She'd been up all day yesterday, watched Willow all night and went through a very emotionally demanding day. Now that she was sure that Willow was safe, she almost collapsed on the spot. Not there's only one thing she wanted.
Okay. Two things.
Sleep and dreaming of Willow.
Fame! I'm gonna live forever,
Yeah, right... Tara snickered at the song piping out of the speaker, apparently tuned into a golden oldies station.
I'm gonna learn how to fly, high!
Well, if you're trying to fly, you certainly aren't going to live long...
Tara was in a good mood. She sat in a booth at the Espresso Pump, reflecting just how much her life had changed in the past week. Despite her failure, Mort had given her a very favorable review and she was actually given the opportunity to choose between no less than three re-assignments : Reykjavik, Dallas or... The outlying communities of Los Angeles. Tara more than suspected Mort had a hand in placing her name on the list of potential candidates for the last position.
It turned out that the Collectors in Los Angeles were short on staff to be able to 'service' Los Angeles and the nearby outlying towns. So they had requested a separate post to be created to alleviate their workload. Tara had jumped at this opportunity, despite warnings from the Head Office that it would be a lonely position for her.
Tara smiled to herself. She was no stranger to loneliness.
Yesterday, she had been given a new cloak. A new, fluffy cloak that fit her as if it had been made for her. It was pitch-black, darker even than her old robe, and there were yellow runes embroidered in the edge of the hood, signifying her rank as Collector Senior of this region.
Of course, she was the only Collector in this region, but still... of the one Collector in this region, she was master and commander. She considered giving herself orders, but decided that that would probably be a bit... quirky.
A big smile crossed her features. She had her own post, her very own post. Donny doesn't have his own post. Goddess, he's going to be soooo jealous! Tara decided she'd rub his nose in it at every opportunity she'd get.
She also loved her new scythe. A sleek and sporty Mortis 5000X, newest model with a long, narrow blade. She could still smell the spell-components used to charm it. It was made from strong and light fiberglass and truly felt like an extension of her arm whenever she wielded it.
The Head Office had rented a nice apartment for her and she had moved in two days ago. Unfortunately, a clerical error on the Head Office's part had mixed her up with another Collector called Tara McRae and had accidentally shipped her furniture to the wrong place. Tara sighed again, knowing that all her belongings were now stored in the post-office of a small rural town near Aberdeen. Not only that, but she'd also been getting all of Tara McRae's mail the past few days.
Finally, after a lot of phonecalls, she had indeed been able to convince the Head Office that her name was Tara Maclay... It brought her some measure of relief, even if she would have to sleep on the floor for at least another week until her furniture could be shipped back. Still, she hadn't been called to collect a soul yet, so she could spend some free time getting acclimatized. Sunnydale certainly had less air pollution than LA. And, as an added perk, there was a certain red-head living in Sunnydale.
She'd been wracking her brain trying to think of different scenarios to approach her. What would be the best way? Bumping into her? Hanging around campus? What will I say? What can I say? She'd spend nights and days trying to think up as many scenarios and opening lines as she could, but she still had no idea how to approach her Willow. No, not mine... not yet, at least... Ah, this is silly, Tara sighed.
Tara sipped her coffee and stood up to get a refill. Suddenly, someone bumped into her, almost knocking her over. A book fell to the ground at her feet and Tara felt her heart skip a beat when she saw the title: 'The Wonderful World Of Linux'.
Holy goddess, you're Willow! Tara gulped. She tried to draw on the many stategies she had considered during the past few days... all the carefully weighed tactics and openings... and at the moment all she could think to say was 'Ummmmmmm...'.
Damn that Murphy and his stupid law! Don't panic, Tara. Don't panic! I said DON'T PANIC, MACLAY!
She slowly looked up. And there she was. Willow. Wearing a yellow fluffy sweater, a pair of light red dungarees and a small purple bonnet, she looked like a color-coordinator's worst nightmare. But to Tara, she simply looked irresistibly cute.
Being closer to the book, Tara scooped it up.
"Gosh, I'm really sorry," Willow babbled. "Always with my nose in the books, that's me. I mean, the entire world might explode, but I'd never notice if I was reading. Which is probably a good thing, because of all the fire and explosions and the dying in the cold vacuum of space and all that. Uh, sorry, I didn't see you. Uh, not because you're easy to miss, cause you're not. Easy to miss, I mean, not easy. Just gorg... uhm... Oh, I'm Willow, by the way."
"T-tara," Tara said, being slightly nervous. No, mortified was the right word. Slightly mortified. No, not slightly. Just mortified.
"Pleased to meet you, Tara," Willow said. Tara handed Willow's book to her. The two touched hands ever so briefly, but even that briefest of contact was electrifying. Willow frowned briefly. "Say, um, do I know you? Cause... it feels like I know you," Willow suddenly looked stricken. "Uh, I didn't mean that as a quick pick-up line. I just meant to say I feel like I know you. I mean, I don't even know if you are..." Willow caught herself. "And even if I did and you were, I'd never use a line that's so lame and... I just talk way too much, don't I?"
Tara was amazed by the sheer torrent of words that came from Willow's mouth... Goddess, two babbles for the price of one... Oh, I could listen to her all day long... "It's okay," Tara smiled.
The red-haired girl smiled and extended her hand. "Let's start over. Hi, I'm Willow."
"Tara," Tara smiled and took Willow's hand. The two locked eyes while Tara softly stroked the back of Willow's hand with her thumb. Both Willow and Tara lost track of time, their surroundings, everything. There were just the two of them, and the gentlest of soft touches.
Willow was the first to blink and look away. "Well," Willow pouted for a moment, after having looked around the shop. "Looks like my friend Xander stood me up again."
Careful Maclay, don't mess this up... And breathe. Breathe, Tara, don't forget to breathe. It's bad PR if Death drops dead in the middle of a cafeteria.
Tara took a deep breath, and found the current song on the golden olden playlist to be rather fitting.
We can be like they are.
"W-would you like to join m-me? For c-coffee?"
Baby, take my hand.
"A-are you sure?" Willow asked. "'Cause, I wouldn't wanna impose."
We'll be able to fly.
Tara felt her heart pounding in her chest, "N-no. Of course n-not."
Don't fear the Reaper.
Willow offered Tara a genuine smile. "Okay, I will."
Tara had never felt happier in her entire life than at this very moment. "Please," she smiled. "Please, sit down."
Don't fear the Reaper.
As Tara listened to the sound of Willow's voice during their breakfast, she smiled warmly at the young woman who still had her whole life ahead of her. Tara just hoped and dreamed that Willow would spend it with her.
Not ending Willow's life had been the best decision in her life.