Tara sighed somewhat sadly when she was stirring the freshly broken eggs in the pan with a wooden spatula.
For Tara, there was nothing more magical than waking up in Willow's arms in the morning, to find the sleeping girl pressed against her with that peaceful expression on her beautiful face. Every morning, Tara ached for having to tear herself away from her moment of bliss to fix breakfast.
Then again, watching Willow's eyes light up when Tara'd present her with one of her patented vegetable filled omelets was a heartwarming moment as well, so things tended to even out somewhat.
Tara checked the clock and saw that it was almost 9.30. Of course, on mondays, a simple rule applied: No Morning Classes + Mondays = Lazy Willow. Tara smiled to herself as she thought of how Willow always stuffed her head underneath her pillow to keep the sun coming in through the skylight out of her eyes.
Tara put the cut vegetables into the pre-omelet and stirred her culinary creation slightly. Only a few more seconds and she'd be done. Thankfully, after this hectic weekend, she'd get some time to spend with Willow, even if it was just a couple of hours before she'd go to class. Tara looked over at her desk and smiled to herself: it had taken her two evenings, but all her paperwork was done. All the forms were filled out, all the souls were properly labeled and catalogued and all the Harvesting files were ready to be returned to the Head Office.
The only thing left was the BlackBorder that had been delivered by special courier last Friday. And it was still on her desk, a sealed file stamped with the words 'Harvester Eyes Only' and a date and time, two days from now, at 15.34.
A BlackBorder was a high-profile and highly important Harvesting. Sometimes, the Powers-That-Be wanted to have a person Harvested at a specific date and time, to further their plans for humanity. These cases were always handled with the greatest of secrecy. Not even Tara, the local Collector Senior, was allowed to open the file and take a peek. In fact, she wasn't even supposed to know anything about the BlackBorder after the soul had been Harvested.
But, as any Collector had learned : If you want to know who the BlackBorder is, just look in the papers. This wednesday, a well known real-estate mogul by the name of Jefferson B. Warbucks would be inspecting the new office block that was under construction in Sunnydale's Central Business District. Well, actually, Tara thought. That one building will be Sunnydale's Central Business District when it's finished.
Moreso, Tara took solace in the fact that Faith wouldn't be able to weasel out of having to do her own paperwork for this case. Tara was barely even allowed to touch the BlackBorder, let alone write up the report about it.
Seeing her omelet was finished, Tara left the BlackBorder for what it was and brought the spoils of her labors up the stairs to the loft. And sure enough, there Willow lay on the bed, her head stuffed underneath her pillow.
"Wanna sleep," Willow moaned. "Away, accursed sun! Away!"
Tara looked through the skylight and back at Willow. "I don't think the sun is impressed, sweetie."
"One day," Willow replied, "I am going to find a way to destroy the sun. That'll teach him. Yeah, the sun is definitely a 'him'. Only men can be this annoying."
"Or," Tara smiled. "We could buy some curtains... when we actually have the money to pay for some nice ones, that is. Plus, it'd keep all the people on the planet from dying of frostbite, which is a nice perk."
"Hmmmm," Willow was suddenly wide awake when the smell of the omelet hit her nostrils. A few moments later, Willow was lying on her side, snacking from the omelet while Tara lay besides her, holding her tightly and often kissing Willow's neck.
Life was great.
"Come on, Faith," Buffy grinned while she hit the ice and took a few practise loops. In Buffy's ongoing project to introduce Faith to the many aspects of her life, she had taken off from work at the school after lunch to take Faith to the skating rink. Iceskating was one of Buffy's childhood hobbies and even though she only hit the ice once every few months or so, it was something she tremendously enjoyed and wanted to share with the person she loved.
Faith carefully entered the rink, looking a whole lot more wobbly on her feet than Buffy was. "Uh, hold on. Hold on... WHOA!" Faith said while she almost fell on her butt. Feeling her feet being pulled right from under her by slipping on the ice underneath her skates, she grabbed hold off the railing quickly and held on for dear life.
Buffy expertly skated to the side of her girlfriend. "You okay, Faith?"
"Sure, B," Faith grunted while she desperately tried to maintain her footing, but only ended up hanging on to the railing while her feet flailed along the ice, futily trying to get her skates to grip into the ice.
"Calm down, Faith, breathe. Breathe..."
"I AM breathing, B!" Faith replied sharply. "It's not doing me much good, though."
Buffy gently took her girlfriend by the arm and hoisted her up slightly, helping her to maintain balance. Faith perked up slightly, as Buffy slowly guided her along the ice, though Faith never strayed far from the railing.
"See?" Buffy smiled. "You're doing fine."
"Just so you know," Faith replied. "We'll be going to the Monster Truck Rally next sunday. And we'll eat lots of fries and drink lots of cola!"
"Deal," Buffy said.
"I think I'm getting the hang of this," Faith said when she was standing somewhat more stably on the ice.
"Okay, on the count of three, I'll be letting you go," Buffy replied. "One... Two... Three..."
True to her word, Buffy let go of Faith, who continued on in a straight line across the ice.
"Hey, cool," Faith smiled while she continued moving across the ice. "Uh, B? How do I steer? Uh, how do I brake? Uh, Buffy?! Oh, SHIIIIITTT!"
Then, poor Faith lost her balance... and Buffy looked on in horror as her girlfriend let out an agonized shriek.
"Faith!" Buffy shouted. "Faith, speak to me!"
"No, I don't know Tanya Baker," Dr. Bart Keppel replied while he strolled along the courtyard while the shaggily dressed lieutenant Columbo followed him around.
"Oh?" Columbo scratched his head. "Gee, that's funny."
"Why is it funny?"
"Well, you see, we've got a lead on this miss Baker. Apparently she left town the day of the murder and an airplanes check with the airlines turned her up in Lisbon. She checked into a hotel there."
Dr. Keppel scoffed in an annoyed fashion. "Well, your problem there is simple to solve, lieutenant. All you need to do is make an overseas telephone call."
"I did, sir," Columbo explained.
"And did you reach miss Baker?" Dr. Keppel said as he prepared to make his swing.
"Yes sir, I did," Columbo replied.
"But you weren't able to find out anything?" Keppel said.
"No, sir, not too much," Columbo said while Keppel too his swing. "Except that you do know her. Oh, that's not bad, doc," Columbo remarked on the swing. "I mean, it's not far, but it's straight."
"Lieutenant," Dr. Keppel grinned. "You are bluffing. Miss Baker never said we knew each other."
"No, sir, not directly, you're right about that," Columbo replied calmly, his still smoking cigar in his hand. "But, you see, I made the telephone-call collect. From a Dr. Bart Keppel to miss Tanya Baker," he continued.
Dr. Keppel stared at him uneasily, and then quickly looked away from the kindly lieutenant.
"Would you like me to take you to your ball?" Columbo asked.
"That was excellent," Faith spoke to the small portal DVD-player parked on her belly. She clicked the movie on pause when she saw Tara enter her room. Buffy the Mastiff looked up from her basket in front of Faith's bed, but when she saw good folk had entered the room, she relaxed and returned to her snoozing.
"Faith," Tara said while she sat down on the chair next to Faith's bed and patted her friend's shoulder. "One day you have to tell me how you managed to sprain both your ankles and a wrist at the same time."
"It's a talent," Faith grinned. "Two skates wanting to go in a different direction while you're trying to grab hold of the railing and all that. Hell on the joints, though."
Faith was under the care of the Summers family and lay resting in their downstairs guestroom. Both of Faith's ankles, as well as her right wrist, were taped up in the emergency room before Joyce had brought her back to Casa de Summers. According to the doctor, she wouldn't be able to walk for at least three more days and was instructed to keep off her feet as much as possible for another two weeks. To Tara, Faith seemed remarkably content with that, though.
Faith was awkwardly fiddling with the volume settings of her portable DVD-player for a moment with her untaped left hand. On the tiny screen, Columbo was frozen in time, yet ready to start solving a murder in his own typical way for the enjoyment of Faith, who was leaning her head against the pillow.
"It's not so bad, T," Faith shrugged. "I have a nice family to exploit for the next two weeks. Joyce said she's even getting me a little bell for when I need something. Neat, huh?"
At that moment, Buffy came in with a steaming cup of chicken soup. Faith put the DVD-player on the side of the bed and let Buffy put down the tray.
"Thanks," Faith smiled.
"Faith, I'm so sorry," Buffy replied mournfully.
"You said that forty times already, B," Faith replied softly. "It's okay, sugar-lips."
"Well, I'm sorry again," Tara heard Buffy say, and remarkably, the petite blonde seemed to be even poutier than Willow could be after her computer had crashed. This was a 'dog-wanting-to-be-fed'-level of pouting. Heavy-duty stuff.
"B," Faith took Buffy's hand and squeezed slightly while Buffy looked as if she was about to break out in tears. "It's alright. I'm the one that fall. It's not as if you pushed me or anything."
"Yeah, b-b-but," Buffy sniffed. "If I hadn't twisted your arm about going to the skating rink, you'd be all walk-y today and we'd be having a picnic in the park now. I'm sorry Faith, I'm sorry Tara."
"Why are you apologizing to me?" Tara asked gently.
"Because I hurt your friend," Buffy's tear-ducts looked as if they we about to explode.
"It's okay, Buffy," Tara smiled. "It's only Faith."
"Hey!" Faith mock-glowered at Tara for a moment. "I resemble that remark."
Buffy looked even more guilty. "Anya called. There's a crisis at the school that she wants me to look into, but... I can't leave you now."
"Look, it's okay," Faith smiled and took Buffy's hand. "I'll be fine, you take care of your school. I'll be here when I get back, B. I'm not going anywhere."
Faith realized her faux-pas when a choked sob escaped from Buffy's throat. With her free hand, Faith pulled Buffy's head towards her and kissed the top of her head.
Reluctantly, Buffy left the room, looking back at Faith for one last time before closing the door.
"God, I love that girl," Faith sighed.
The door opened again and Buffy's head popped into the room. "Uhm, if you need me, I'll still be in the house for the next couple of minutes, so..." Buffy still looked very guilty when she slowly closed the door. "Love you, Faith."
After making sure Buffy wouldn't enter anymore, Tara got straight to business. "I guess I'll have to present that BlackBorder to another Harvester," Tara said.
"What?!" Faith sat up straight, grimacing in pain when she put too much pressure on her wrist. "Just put me in a wheelchair and roll me to the victim! Come on, I'm still good ole Faithy. Just point me in the right direction."
"I'm not supposed to know who the BlackBorder case is until after the deed, remember?" Tara half-smiled.
"Oh, details, details," Faith shrugged. "I suppose I won't be harvesting for a while, though, then. Crap."
At that moment, Joyce entered the room. "Okay, Faith, you need your rest now," she said while taking away the empty bowl and grabbing hold of the DVD-player. "I'm sorry, Tara, but I think it's time to leave Faith to sleep now. Besides, Dawn wants to show you her latest story over some milk and cookies."
"Hey!" Faith protested. "That's Columbo!"
"You need your rest, little miss," Joyce stressed. "So go to sleep and heal your body so my daughter doesn't have to feel so guilty anymore. Peter Falk will be around when you wake up."
"Aww," Faith pouted as if she were a toddler being put to bed against her wishes, but finally agreed to submit, leaving Tara to the task of finding another Harvester to take care of the BlackBorder. After the milk, cookies and stories, of course.
The next day, Tara was sitting shotgun in Willow's red volkswagen beetle, looking out the window.
"Xander is so excited about that Warbucks visit," Willow said. "There's going to be journalists and TV-crews. He's going to try to creep up front to the camera's to wave at us. And, of course, Anya practically worships this Warbucks guy."
"Hm," Tara replied, not quite wanting to say she suspected Warbucks wouldn't leave the construction-site alive.
"How are you gonna get past the whole Faith being out on the count thingy, baby?" Willow asked. "I suppose somebody has to take over while she's down and out. People just can't stop dying cause the Reaper's on extended leave. Uh, they can't can they? Imagine being there lying on your deathbed and waiting for Death but she never comes. So, you get up and try to pick up your life again, go to the park, play with your grandkids and right out of the blue... BAM, Death comes back from his or her leave and you drop down dead like a fly which has crashed into a glass sheet."
"That's why we have replacements, sweetie," Tara smiled. "I called Dar yesterday and she'll send along a temp to replace Faith and a more experienced Harvester to take care of the BlackBorder."
Willow turned around the corner and slowly drove onto the mainstreet. "So why do you always have to use pen and paper?"
"What do you mean?" Tara asked.
"I mean, why hasn't the Head Office given you a sexy black laptop? It'd be much more efficient. You'd be able to fill out the forms on your computer and just mail them to the Head Office," Willow replied.
"I wouldn't know what to do with a computer," Tara smiled softly, knowing full well how dear to Willow's heart computers were. "Not many Reapers are technically inclined. Certainly not the administrative staff. Reapers never really go with the new thing, you see? In fact, our records were still being inscribed on parchment until the 1880's. Besides, you can't e-mail a soul. You have to bring that in anyway, so you might as well bring in the paperwork as well."
"I suppose," Willow pouted slightly. She pulled up in front of their apartment, but before she could steer her bug into the parking space, another car pulled up from behind and parked in the spot before she could react. "Oh, cat-poopy," Willow cursed and glowered at the ninety year old lady that stepped out of the SUV that was now parked in Willow's favorite parking spot. "And, of course, the entire street is filled with cars. Tara, will you take in the groceries? I'll go look for another spot."
Tara kissed her girlfriend on the cheek, and started to unload the groceries from the trunk. While Willow drove off to look for another parking space, Tara took the groceries inside. After walking up the stairs and fiddling with her keys, Tara walked inside and headed straight to the kitchen block to put down the bags.
She was startled to hear someone scraping his throat behind her. Turning around, Tara noticed a platinum blonde man in a black coat leaning back on the couch while puffing away on a cigarette. Next to him sat a deranged looking brunette in a pretty dress intently watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
"Spike," Tara sighed. "Drusilla..."
"Hello, ducks," Spike waved to her. "I'm here to take care of your little BlackBorder problem." Immediately, Tara felt dread form in the pit of her stomach.
"Dru?" Tara asked. Drusilla, too intent on watching Elmer Fudd and his 'wabbit season', did not reply.
"I brought her along," Spike shrugged. "You know her and her abandonment issues."
"I like the Bunny," Dru raved all of a sudden before turning all her attention back to the TV.
Tara coughed slightly. "Uh, c-could you p-please put out your c-cigarette?"
Spike snorted and blow a load of smoke right into Tara's face, causing her to cough more intensely.
"So, this is your apartment, then?" Spike shrugged. "Bit of a dump, but it'll do. Dru and I sleep on that loft, right?"
"Excuse me?" Tara crossed her arms. "You're not s-s-staying here."
"Now," Spike replied. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it a rule that the local Collector Senior makes sure that a visiting Harvester is 'clothed, fed and lodged', as they say?"
Tara sighed heavily. "You're not w-wrong."
"Hey, don't look at me like that. It's not my fault you aren't running with the big boys anymore. If you'd remained a Harvester, you could have been taking advantage of Collectors like we are doing right now," Spike replied. "How about you bring us a couple of drink, luv?"
"Tara!" sounded Willow's voice from the stairs, beyond the still open front-door. "I almost had to fight a trucker for it, but I found a parking spot and..."
Willow entered the house and threw her hat onto the coatrack, before noticing Spike on the couch. "Tara?"
"Harvesters," Spike broke in. "Official business. So, you're the mortal that Tara's been seeing? You's got good taste, ducks," Spike told Tara.
Tara blushed slightly. "Uh, W-willow? This is S-spike and that is D-Drusilla. I, uhm, t-told you about t-them."
"I remember," Willow glowered at Spike. "Are you smoking in my house?! God, he's smoking in my house, Tara! I can't believe it! Smoking! In my house! Put out that stinky tobacco, mister Lung-Cancer-Waiting-To-Happen-At-Age-35!"
"No bloody way," Spike crossed his arms. "Tara's supposed to make us comfortable and give us a place to stay. And we like it here. And I like to smoke here."
"A place to stay? Not here you don't, fellah!" Willow's resolve face came out of retirement. "You're stinking up our home and you're upsetting Tara."
"It's a rule," Tara sighed. "I can't s-send them away."
"Well, I'm not a Reaper," Willow turned to Spike. "I own half the house, and I say you've got to leave. OUT!" Willow pointed at the door.
Spike sighed. "Alright, alright. Come along, Dru," he said, pulling the catatonic Dru away from the television. "Cor, what a spitfire you are. A girlfriend with backbone is exactly what Miss Congeniality here needs, pet," Spike said while passing the fuming Willow. "Oh, hey, you wouldn't be able to spare us a few bob for a hotel, would you?"
"OUT!" Willow shouted again.
When Spike and Dru were gone, Willow closed the door and hugged Tara. Tara herself relaxed in Willow's arms. Though she had known Spike and Dru through Faith for a long time now, Spike always succeeded in making Tara incredibly nervous.
"You okay, baby?" Willow asked. "Man, what a jerk. He's even worse than the sun."
"I'm alright," Tara replied. "Goddess, you're right, he really stank up the place."
"I'm going to open a couple of windows," Willow said.
So now Tara was faced with at least two days of worrying what kind of damage Spike and Dru would to Sunnydale and their inhabitants. Dammit, Tara thought grimly. This is all Buffy's fault!
And Tara immediately felt guilty for thinking that.
The next day, Tara found herself standing in the lobby of the hotel where Spike and Drusilla were staying. Apparently, the two had spare no expenses and had booked an expensive room in the Sunnydale Hilton, expenses paid by the Head Office. Tara huffed slightly when she was waiting for the elevator. It's a good thing the Head Office is obscenely rich, otherwise the Harvesters would have bankrupted us by now, Tara thought.
But as soon as Tara stepped into the elevator, indignation made way for dread. Tara and Spike had known each other through Faith, but Tara had always been more than a little intimidated by him. And Dru, well, she was deranged... and since there was nothing quite as dangerous as a deranged Reaper, it made Tara wonder why she was allowed to operate in the field, where a Collector with the same kind of mental problems was usually given a job far away from the field. It was simply another sign of the double standards being used by the Head Office.
The front office had already informed Spike that she was coming up, so she was not surprised to find him waiting there for her outside the room.
"Spike?" Tara asked when she found him blocking the door.
"Uh, leave Dru alone for a bit, ducks," Spike shrugged. "Dru couldn't abide the flowers, so she attacked them... and the furniture... and the windows... Hell, even the sodding minibar."
"Have you studied the BlackBorder?" Tara asked.
"Oh, you'll get your paperwork, ducks. Unlike Faith, I do those sort of things," Spike shrugged.
"It's n-not that," Tara looked away and took a moment to catch her breath. "I-I... You have a reputation for c-collateral damage and..."
"Oh, don't worry, ducks," Spike grinned. "We'll figure out something spectacular."
"N-no!" Tara protested. "J-just do your job with as little collateral damage as possible."
"Now," Spike crossed his arms. "You came all this way just to tell me this, while you know I'm not going to listen to you anyway. I'm here to do a job, pet. The Powers want to give that guy a Death worth remembering, and I'm just the one who provides. So don't complain to me when you get squeamish. With an attitude like that, it's no wonder you washed out of Harvester apprenticeship program. No offence, pet."
Tara was about to retort when her pager beeped buzzed loudly from her pocket.
"Shouldn't you get that," Spike shrugged. "We'll talk later," he opened the door, immediately dodging a flying lamp.
Tara shook her head and hurried along to the elevator. Her cloak and scythe were at home, after all. In the elevator, Tara fished her cellphone out of her pocket and dialed.
Xand-man to Enterprise. Talk to me, Captain, sounded Xander on the other end of the line.
"Xander? Hi, it's Tara."
Hey, Tara. So, why aren't you in front of the TV? You're gonna miss me waving to you guys in front of the camera. At least one of the Harris family will be turning up on CNN without being a surrounded by FBI agents, Xander laughed.
"Xander," Tara sighed. How to tell him this? "Xander, listen to me. Don't get near Warbucks. Tell Anya to stay away too. Please, Xander. I... I had this feeling. Take a day off or something."
Are you sure it's not the spaghetti you ate yesterday? Xander replied. You know what kind of damage Willow's meatballs can do to a person. Willow's the best friend I've ever had, but she's a lousy chef.
"Xander... Please," Tara whispered in desperation.
Alright. If you say so, Tara, he replied. But next time a TV crew comes to town, I'll be making my television debut for sure! It's how Bruce Campbell got started, you know?
"Thanks, Xander," Tara replied, hearing from the tone of Xander's voice that he believed her. "Just... be careful, okay?"
Tara had been sitting at an elderly woman's deathbed for a while, but found herself unable to concentrate on her task. Thankfully, the woman's passing was peaceful, and she was surrounded by friends and family, meaning that Tara had only to take care of the basics. If fact, Tara was so lost in thoughts she suddenly found herself in an empty room with the soul already hovering over the body. Slightly embarrassed, Tara gently placed the soul into the container.
Suddenly, a loud bang sounded in the distance, while the ground shook slightly.
At first, Tara thought it was another one of Sunnydale's frequent minor earthquakes, but considered it was too short for that. To her, it seemed more like a massive explosion. Tara hurried to the window, and found her fears confirmed: a huge plume of black arid smoke came from the construction site in the distance, and she could just see tongues of flame from the site reaching over the rooftops.
She checked her watch... '15.34'
As attuned to Death as she was, Tara could sense the passing of almost two dozen people from the direction of the construction site, mixed with an overwhelming sense of fear and pain. She felt sick to her stomach for a moment, but forced herself to ignore those feelings. In the distance, the first sirens screamed through the streets, while her pager started to beep vigorously. It had apparently taken the Head Office a few moments to catch on.
She slid through the wall, glided down to the street and ran into an empty alley. She removed her hood and called Willow on her cellphone.
"Sweetie," she called, hearing Willow tremble on the other side of the line. "M-meet me at the c-c-construction site. Something t-terrible just happened."