Willow and Xander, with Tara trailing behind them, arrived at a large and lovely house in a suburb near campus. A painted sign next to the door read 'Summers Residence.' The lights were on and Tara could see two people rushing through the door as soon as Willow had rung the doorbell.
A girl that Tara recognized as the short blonde from the photographs at Willow's apartment opened the door and proceeded to take first Willow and then Xander into a brief hug. Next to the blonde girl, stood a younger, brown-haired girl that was almost as tall as the short blonde.
"Hey, Buff," Xander smiled.
Ah, this must be Buffy, Tara thought.
"Dawnie," Willow smiled and hugged the younger girl. The girl called Dawn broke the hug and went straight for Xander.
"Uh, Dawn?" Xander said when Dawn's hug was taking a lot longer than he was expecting. "If you don't let go soon, I'll be falling under the 'jailbait'-category. And I don't really feel like sharing a cell with a Tattooed guy called Crusher anytime soon."
Dawn let go. "Sorry," she said sheepishly.
Tara followed them in. Immediately, she noticed the opportunities in Buffy's house, while the rest of the group strolled into the den. A staircase for Willow to tumble off... Exposed wiring near the television... Old style microwave... No, no, too painful, not quick enough... She shouldn't suffer.
While the four friends were unpacking the snacks and preparing the DVD-player for action, Tara noticed Willow was sitting on the couch, very much near a pen-holder. In it, one blue bic had been replaced with the tip upright. Should I do this? Tara gulped. I'd have to make Willow trip and fall forward. The pen'll... drive itself into her brain through her... Oh, goddess... But, it'll be quick, painless... instantaneous. And she wouldn't die alone. But... Oh, goddess, no, no, NO!... I can't do this... I'll have to find another way.
She was startled by Xander suddenly speaking up. "Ladies and... uh, well, ladies," Xander shrugged while fishing a DVD from his bag. "May I present, for your viewing pleasure, Lucio Fulci's masterpiece 'Zombie Flesh-Eaters', aka 'Zombie 2', aka 'Island of the Living Dead', in its full and uncut glory!" He held up the DVD case, a rotting Zombie on the cover, with pride. "Took me a long time to find it, but it's here, all 94 minutes of it."
"Wow," Dawn whispered.
"Xander," Buffy crossed her arms. "Xnay on the aphicgray orrorhay in front of ertaincay inorsmay here."
"Buffy!" Dawn said angrily. "I know pig-latin."
Xander blinked. "Well, I'm glad at least one of us knows what the hell the Buffster just said. Anyway, this version has the infamous eye-scene fully restored."
"Eye-scene?" Dawn asked, a bit too interested for Buffy's tastes, apparently. Tara saw the short blonde narrowing her eyes at Xander.
Xander was quick to respond, though. "Ah, I'm glad you asked, little miss, glad indeed," he said, going into 'used-car salesman'-mode. "For this version shows the Paolo Menard character's head being pulled towards a sharpened splinter by a zombie, until it agonizingly slowly enters her eye, her brain and eventually comes out through the back of her skull."
Tara listened intently to Xander's vivid description of the scene and, considering what she had been about to do, felt more than a little sick. She didn't even dare to look at Willow.
Dawn's eyes glazed over for a moment as if she imagined the scene unfolding in front of her eyes. "That is... AWESOME!! Let's watch it!"
"I dunno, I'm not really in a horror-movie mood right now, Xander," Willow grimaced. "I've got classes tomorrow and I really don't wanna sit there like a zombie because I had trouble sleeping. Or what if I fall asleep behind my computer and I wake up later with a keyboard imprint on my cheek? Everybody'd point at me and say 'ha-ha, look at the party-gal'."
"Shall we put it up to the vote?" Xander said. "All in favor of watching Zombie Flesh Eaters, raise their hands."
Xander raised his hand. Buffy and Willow crossed their arms. Dawn raised her hand... two hands... and started to jump up and down.
"Mom isn't here and if she was," Buffy started, "she'd vote 'no'. Proposal rejected."
"Awww," Dawn pouted.
"It was worth a try, Dawnie" Xander smiled and gave her a wink. A wink that Dawn understood meant 'Okay, Dawnie, don't tell Buffy, but come over to my place tomorrow night and the two of us'll watch it with Anya.' Dawn nodded, and remained remarkably un-whiney.
"Hey, how about something we can heckle?" Willow suggested. "I'm in a heckle-y mood today."
"Ask and the Xand-man will provide," he said and fished another DVD case from the bag. The title 'Gigli' was prominently featured on the wrap-around.
Buffy shook her head vigorously. "No, no, no, we want movies of the 'unintentionally funny' kind, not of the 'vomit inducing' kind."
"Xander," Willow frowned. "Every time someone watching that movie, God kills a puppy. We have to think of the puppies, Xander."
"Yeah, I didn't think so either," Xander shook his head and tossed the DVD back into the bag. "But wait, there's more!"
And so began the great movie-vote. Tara watched on in fascination as the group weighed movies to watch, considering which movies of Xander's collection were heckle-worthy, yet not terrible enough to fall into the bash-worthy catagory. Finally, the group has decided on 'Paint your Wagon' as the main course, 'Rambo 3' as the dessert and 'Conan the Destroyer' as the opener.
Dawn installed herself on the floor, lying with her legs underneath the coffee-table while watching the screen. Buffy and Xander sat down next to Willow on the couch after Buffy had put the DVD into the machine and pressed play. Soon enough, the four friends were laughing at scenes that were meant to be deep and meaning, making fun of atrocious dialogue and of Arnold's mighty barbarian posturing.
Tara watched it all, and could feel just how close these four friends were. The past few weeks, she'd been knee-deep in Death, only apprenticing with Mort, sleeping and eating, if there was even time for the latter. She had hardly had any time to spend with Faith, her only real friend, other than some very quick visits. In that instant, Tara felt just how lonely she was.
And there was Willow. Willow, who was laughing at Arnold, as he grunted while trying to lift a stone that was obviously painted styrofoam. She looks so happy, Tara smiled. And she looks so cute when she laughs...
That was it. Tara suddenly felt the walls bearing down at her. She just had to get out of there... fast.
And it's not as if there'll be any more opportunities here... Tara sighed. She phased through the wall and walked into the loneliness of the night with a bowed head, leaving the four friends to their joy.
It was surprising she had slept at all, but Tara considered she must had gotten at least a few hours because the sun shining in her face had woken her up.
After yesterday, Tara had decided it was for the best to have a Willow-less day. Her assignment had been becoming more and more stressful. It had been two days now, and she still wasn't even close to finding an acceptable method of death for Willow.
Considering, the long hours she'd been making, her apartment was in desperate need for a cleaning and, to be honest, she certainly could use a bit of a rest. After waking up, she took a long, relaxing shower. After getting dressed, she gathered her dirty laundry to give it a good wash. Twenty minutes later, she hung the contents of her hamper from the clothesline strung above her small balcony. There, between skirts, pants and t-shirts hung Tara's cloak, swaying a bit in the slight summer breeze.
Tara turned on her stereo, tuned up a station playing mellow classic Jazz and started to vacuum her apartment religiously, tasked to make up for weeks of neglect. After that, she shined her coffee-table, wiped her windows, sharpened her scythe, cleaned the toilet and gathered all the trash to bring it to the dumpster.
After that, Tara decided it was time to do some groceries. Though she didn't own a car, and since her cloak allowed her to teleport she didn't really need one to begin with, the supermarket was just down the street. She left her apartment and walked on the side-walk, feeling the sun warming her face. For the first in a long time, she felt free.
She hummed cheerfully while walking through the aisles in the supermarket, loading up her cart with fresh vegetables, meat, flour, eggs and spices. Finally, I'll eat some real food tonight. Realizing she'd be busy again very soon, she loaded some quick-to-prepare TV-dinners into her cart, along with some other edibles she could whip up in a hurry. Oh, and some beer in case Faith'll drop in. Hm, better make that two sixpacks... it's her week off.
Soon enough, Tara found herself waiting in line at the cash register. Much to her chagrin, she noticed that all the other lines were moving much faster than hers... No, no, Tara thought. Murphy's Law clearly states that the moment you leave your line for another, it'll start moving really fast, while the one you'll be part of then will grind to a halt. I'm not moving from this line. No way.
The wait seemed to drag on and on and on. Looking at the lines left and right of her, she saw all new faces while she had barely moved two inches ahead. Agonizingly slowly, Tara pushed forward, until the line came to a stand-still again next to the magazine rack. Tara saw all the bleach-blonde and botox and/or sillicone enhanced celebrities on the covers, staring at her with their dead eyes, and shuddered slightly. And again the line stopped moving.
Tictacs, tabloids and condoms. I am surrounded by tictacs, tabloids and condoms. And the occasional misplaced lime-green kiddie-snorkel.
Tara looked up and noticed she was standing right underneath one of the ceiling speakers piping the music into the store.
"Wake me up before you go-go. Don't leave me hangin' on like a yo-yo..."
It was at that point that Tara, normally a tolerant and quiet young woman, was fast approaching her breaking point. Leaning to her left to look past the line made up of zombie-like people shuffling through the supermarket with their purchases, she noticed an old lady at the cash-register was trying pay for a pack of gum with pennies... but kept miscalculating and started to recount the pennies again and again and again.
Oh, if only I had my scythe with me, Tara grimaced. I'd carve a bloody path to the cash-register, spilling guts, blood and gore all over the supermarket and slash off that old lady's head with one foul slice. Yeah, and I'd be all nonchalant to the cashier and put my groceries on the conveyer all dead-cool like.
But she quickly pushed those feelings aside and felt a little ashamed of having such violent thoughts. The line suddenly moved and stopped again almost immediately, causing her to bump the front of her cart into the man in front of her.
"S-sorry," Tara said as the man turned around, a broad shouldered burly biker with a bushy beard and many tattoos.
"It's okay, dearrie," the man smiled through his beard. "Don't worry. Of course, when I was younger, I would have pounded you into the ground for even looking at me funny. That was me... a wicked, evil boozer and bruiser, living by my own rules and travelling with my gang, doing the Satan's work. But then, one day, I was saved... for I saw the light of our Lord. Would like me to tell you about it?"
"Um..." Tara started. "We, um, are in the middle of a s-supermarket. A-and I don't kn-n-ow you..."
"That's alright, dearrie," the man grinned. "I just want spread the word how I was cured from my violent impulses through the love of Jesus Christ..."
Tara realized the line had closed behind her. In front of her, at least seven more people were waiting for the old lady to count her pennies. To her right were the tabloids. To her left: tictacs, condoms and the occasional misplaced lime-green kiddie-snorkel. And above her? Wham!
Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.
While the man droned on and on about his torrid love-affair with Jesus, Tara's mind started to drift. She closed her eyes... and more and more, the nasal whine she was hearing slowly transformed into Willow's melodic babble. Tara dreamed away for a moment, enjoying the mental images of Willow rigorously scribbling notes in class, or enjoying a cup of mocha at the Espresso Pump, or relaxing on the couch at her room, or walking across the street with that unearthly grace she seemed to possess. And then, looking up at her, giving her the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. A smile, just for me...
"Miss? May I help you?"
Tara's eyes snapped open... and suddenly found herself standing at the cash-register. Everybody in front of her was gone, and a religious pamphlet had mysteriously appeared in her hand.
Tara smiled briefly... Willow had rescued her from a fate worse than Death. She quickly chucked the pamphlet in the nearest waste basket she could find and put her groceries on the conveyer belt.
While she was doing this, Tara realized she'd been happy all day... because she had been thinking of Willow all day. Small flashes of red hair and green eyes in her mind while cleaning her apartment. Reminding herself of the sound of her voice while doing the laundry. Why does thinking of Willow make me so... cheerful?
Tara decided to drop off her groceries at home. Time to head on over to Faith's place.
Carl Johnson hurtled across the road after taking a turn with way too much speed. His TEC-9, firm in hand, he riddled four unsuspecting rival gang-members with bullets. Feeling that his Greenwood was going to swerve again, he quickly put his hands on the wheel.
"Come on, CJ," said Sweet, his brother. "Let's go blast us some more Ballas fools."
"Yeah, CJ," taunted Ryder, one of his childhood friends. "You bustah?"
"Hell no, I'm down," CJ huffed and put the pedal to the metal. A second rain of bullet mowed down a second group of rival gang-members.
"Look, CJ," shouted Big Smoke suddenly. Out of nowhere, four police cars spewed out from a back alley, in hot pursuit of the red Greenwood. CJ didn't hesitate for a moment and raced towards Grove Street, again almost losing control over the car. The first policecar bumped into the Greenwood's trunk, causing the car to spin across the road. Big Smoke and Ryder fired their weapons at the police while CJ desperately tried to regain some measure of control. The car nicked the wall at full speed, sending sparks flying as the metal ground against the stone. With two doors left behind, the car barrelled around the corner, slamming into a gathering of hapless pedestrians. Finally, CJ drove the Greenwood into the Pay'n Spray, the cops still in hot pursuit.
In record time, the car was rebuilt and resprayed. When the formerly red Greenwood emerged from the Pay'n Spray, the policemen were very confused. They were, after all, looking for four black men in a red Greenwood, not for four black men in a blue Greenwood.
"Fly, CJ," said Sweet. "Alright, baby, let's head back to the Grove...
"Oh, wow," Faith smirked when she saw the bodies of the pedestrians Tara had slammed her car into. "You are one stone-cold killer, T."
Tara held her controller and calmly tried to drive the car back to the Grove... and the save-point. Unfortunately, it only took her ten seconds to ram the car into a telephone pole. "Half the time I'm just... driving like someone having an epilleptic seizure, Faith. And those pedestrians? Well, they shouldn't cross the street when there's an out-of-control car barrelling towards them... Um, that's just a s-silly thing to do."
"This is just one of the earlier missions," Faith winked. "Don't worry. You'll get the hang of it, T."
Tara shook her head and handed the controller back to Faith. "I'd better get started or we won't have anything to eat."
"'s cool, T," Faith smiled. "I'll save the game for you and then I'll go race around Los Santos for a bit."
After leaving Faith to play some more of her favorite game, Grand Theft Auto, Tara made her way into Faith's kitchen. Faith's apartment was slightly bigger than Tara's, and the kitchen and den were only separated by a wooden counter. Faith's apartment was also less furnished, since she tended to spend more of her salary on games for her Playstation and electronic gadgets than could be considered smart.
Tara took some ingredients she had brought from home and started working on their meal. She started by cutting the boneless chicken on a wooden board. From the den, she could hear Faith playing, the tires of her car screeching over the road. Tara had gotten into the habit of dropping by Faith regularly to prepare a home-cooked meal for the both of them. Although Tara loved to cook herself a nice meal whenever she had the time for it, Faith practically lived on TV-dinners, insta-meals and canned soup. So, Tara had decided her friend had a right to have a nice home-cooked meal every now and then.
She and Faith had been friends for five years, and Tara had gotten to know her quite well. During those five years, Tara had come to realize that underneath her friend's flippancy and bravado, Faith was just as lonely as she was. Perhaps that's why they got along so well, despite them both being so very different.
Tara smiled to herself. In retrospect, Faith had been a bad influence on her on occasion. After all, it was Faith who had talked her into trying her first... and last cigarette. But, of course, Faith had also been there to take care of her when said first cigarette had made her sick for days.
While Tara was cutting the chicken, her thoughts drifted back to the day she had first met Faith. It was at her graduation ceremony, and they were both fifteen. It was customary to end a Collector's apprenticeship with a short ceremony, and to make things easier, apprenticeships ending around the same time were bundled into one big ceremony.
Since the graduates were announced in alphabetic order, Tara had learned her name was Faith Lehane. Faith bore the ceremony with pride, but even from a distance, Tara could clearly see the sadness in her eyes. Later, she would learn it was because she was the only graduate whose family had not shown up for the ceremony.
When it was Tara's turn, she was slightly panicked to stand in front of the crowd of people, but she focused on her father, standing in the middle. Her brother Donny had come along for the ride, though reluctantly so.
Of course, Donny didn't see any of it, because he was too busy trying out cheap pick-up lines on Faith at the time.
Tara'd be the first to admit that her father was a cold and distant man. But then, when she had earned her title as Collector and was officially accepted into the Reaper community, there was a difference. Though she was sure her father would never, ever admit it, at that moment, she could see in his eyes how proud he was of her. If only that had lasted...
Of course, Donny didn't see any of that either, because Faith was too busy dipping his head into the punch-bowl at the time.
Tara felt a smile spread across her face as that memory replayed itself in her mind. Her horrible bigger brother... beaten up by a girl. It was then that Tara had decided that Faith had become her friend... of course, at that moment in time, Faith hadn't known that yet. Thankfully for her, Tara had told her who Donny was and Faith had seen the humor of the situation. Actually, Tara was sure that Faith had been happy there was at least one person at the ceremony spending time with her which didn't involve improper suggestions or staring at her cleavage. And Faith and Tara had been friends ever since.
Three years ago, Faith decided to try out for the Harvesters and excelled. Only six months ago, Tara decided to follow suit and now she... wasn't sure about anything anymore.
Let's just concentrate on the chicken...
The two girls sat on Faith's ratty old couch, each with a plate of Tara's homemade Gongbao Chicken on their laps, watching an episode Faith had carefully selected from her extensive library of Columbo taped on VHS. Faith had just returned from the kitchen to get a third helping when the episode was reaching its conclusion. Faith plopped down on the couch just in time to catch the final dialogue.
"When did you first suspect me?" said Paul Gerard, about to be arrested for the murder of Vittorio Rossi, whom he had killed by poisoning his wine.
"As it happens, sir..." Columbo said. "About two minutes after I met you."
Paul shook his head. "That can't be possible."
Columbo continued. "Oh, you made it perfectly clear, sir, the very first night when you decided to come to the restaurant directly after you were informed that Vittorio was poisoned."
"I was instructed to come here by the police!" Paul huffed.
"And you came, sir," Columbo stated matter-of-factly.
"After eating dinner with a man that had been poisoned. You didn't go to a doctor. You came because the police instructed you. You didn't go to a hospital. You didn't even ask to have your stomach pumped. Mr. Gerard, that's the damnedest example of good citizenship I've ever seen," Columbo concluded.
"That was excellent," Faith grinned as the credits started to roll. "No matter how many times I see it, it's still excellent."
"But," Tara started. "I don't get it. Um, we already saw Paul killing Vittorio at the beginning of the episode. Where's the mystery if we already know who did it?"
"No, no, no," Faith smirked. "It's not a whodunnit, it's a howdunnit. The mystery is to see how he figures out just how the killer pulled it off and what clues he's left behind. Besides," Faith winked. "I think Columbo's kinda sexy."
Tara blinked for a moment, looked at the TV, and then back at Faith. "Faith, you get weirder every time we meet."
"T, Weird is my middle name."
Tara's eyes sparkled for a moment. "Faith, I thought your middle name was 'Michaela'."
Faith grimaced. "And we shall never mention that again!"
While Faith was taking the tape from the video to archive it in her collection, Tara noticed Thresher Magazine lying at the corner table, along with the rest of Faith's mail. Thresher Magazine was a small in-house magazine created by the Head Office to be spread to all Reapers. It was still in its cellophane wrapper, but on the cover, the Head Office's 99.8% efficiency rating was more than touted.
No, no, no thinking of work today, Tara grimaced, already the flashes of red hair and green eyes appeared in her mind. Looking over her shoulder, through the window, she could see the sun was setting. Tomorrow, she'd have to...
Distraction! Distraction! Tara thought desperately. "Um, Faith? Do you wanna heckle American Idols?"
Faith frowned. "I thought you told me you don't like me doing that? And I thought you couldn't stand that British bastard Whathisname?"
Tara shrugged for a moment, while Faith fished her remote from between the seat cushions and changed the channel.
Yesssterdahay! All my troubles seemed so far awahahahahaaaaaay...
Faith snorted. "Yeah, me too. That's because you didn't burst my eardrums yesterday."
Tara chuckled for a bit, grateful for the distraction. The poor boy was burned by that british bastard for a few moments, and then the next contestant came on. He was actually quite good, but the song...
"Wise men say... only fools rush in,
... It made Tara feel deeply uncomfortable for some reason. "F-faith? I t-think I'll h-head h-home..."
"You okay, T?" Faith asked gently.
No... Not even close... "Yeah, I'm fine," Tara mustered a smile. "I'm just a bit t-tired... and I h-have to get up early t-tomorrow."
Faith grinned. "Back to the grind, ey? Go get that Willow, killer."