Cactus Watcher - January 05 2002
Rack was drunk, quite drunk, deliciously drunk. To borrow a phrase from Dickens; there is no doubt whatever about that. Had he been sober, surely the events would have been different. Although, knowing Sunnydale, one can not be one hundred percent sure.
It was that chilly, drowsy time of year between Christmas and New Year’s, when college students all across the land revel in the warmth and security of close family and old friends back home. They were precious days of no deadlines, no papers, no tests, and for the lucky who got to travel some distance home, no nasty part-time jobs back at school. They were dreamy days when a young woman could sleep late without feeling guilty, and a young man could watch football games endlessly with a clear conscience. But, for some, for a few, they were long empty days.
Tara had nowhere to go that year. She’d disowned her family for treating her like a piece of property, and in turn, they had abandoned her as an unrepentant hooligan. A breakup like she had with Willow would have been hard on anyone. But, when Tara lost Willow to the sharp talons of wild, untamed magic, she lost everyone. She’d always had few friends, but before it seemed normal. Now it hurt. Now she felt like she should avoid Xander, who’d always been Willow’s champion, or as much of a champion as the average awkward young man could be. Xander would just make her feel worse about having left. Seeing Anya was out of the question. Anya sold the bits and pieces that Willow needed to feed her addiction. There was nothing wrong with what Anya did, but going to the Magic Box meant there was a good chance of seeing Willow and seeing her at her worst.
Tara had seen Buffy a time or two. Buffy was distant from everyone those days, and no wonder. Buffy wasn’t in the frame of mind to be anyone’s friend. But, she did try. Tara learned from the Slayer that Willow had gone through a crisis. Buffy had asked her to go see Willow, to let her know there was a way out. But, Tara knew from what had happened to her own mother, that this was a time Willow had to pass through on her own. Willow might or might not need to give up magic entirely. But, she did need to get control of herself. Until that happened it was too dangerous for Tara to even make peace with Willow. The beloved were the ones who were always hurt the worst. It had happened with Tara’s mother. She had tried to use magic to control her demonic side. Instead, it was magic that ruined her spirit, and left Tara with emotional wounds she’d never reveal to anyone. Tara’s mother regained control of her magic, but her spirit did not recover. She died in shame of what she’d done to her daughter. If Willow ever did emerge without destroying herself, she would understand why Tara of all people could not be near her now.
Dawn was still trying, in her own words, to patch things up. Dawn sought out Tara to the point, she was often a pest. As a lonely, young, mature woman, the last thing Tara needed was the conversation of an immature teenager who babbled incessantly about boys, and who wanted advice about dealing with them. In high school, before Tara realized she was gay, the very mention of boys and dating put her nearly into a panic. She barely had enough courage to talk with other girls then, let alone spend enough time around boys to know anything about them. v Tara loved Dawn, and in her very strange, short life, Dawn had lost virtually everyone who loved her. Even the Buffy who came back, wasn’t the person who’d loved Dawn more dearly than her own life. Tara couldn’t abandon her completely. Tara would make sure that she was there, if Dawn really needed her. But, she was not above avoiding Dawn occasionally when the girl just wanted to jabber, and that was how Tara got to know Lisa.
Buffy had given her warning that day. Dawn was in agony over some fellow named Darren or Darrell. She almost overheard him talking with that be-atch what’s-her-name that everybody hates. Couldn’t imagine what any boy sees in that fashion-blind cow, and she always wears that shade of lipstick that goes with nothing... and on and on. Dawn thought he might have said something about her gaining weight, but she wasn’t sure because Laura, who looks so cute in that pink sweater, interrupted, and she said that... and on and on. At any rate, a couple of hours of this was about all Buffy could take. After Buffy called the boy Dudley for a second time, Dawn realized that her sister wasn’t listening seriously to this tale of woe about a perfectly dreamy fellow. After Dawn stormed out in a gale of nobody-cares-about-me-anymores, Buffy called Tara to let her know the walking tantrum was headed her way. It took Tara a while to get ready to go out. While she was waiting for the bus to get across town to the campus, she actually saw Dawn headed for her apartment on the other side of the street. The girl was obviously practicing her I’m-hurt speech, her lips rolling out silent invective, her face mockingly contorted, her arms making wild, but half-restrained gestures, as if everyone on the block hadn’t noticed her already. Dawn went into Tara’s apartment building without seeing her, and before she returned out the front door Tara’s bus had come and gone.
Tara was reading a magazine at the coffee shop across from the psych building when Lisa came up and asked if she was going to take more French literature the next term.
Lisa Preston had been in half of Tara’s college classes, but Tara had barely noticed her, never even said hi, and Tara even did that with some of the guys from class. It was funny. Lisa sat down and had one cup of coffee with Tara, and they became friends. It usually took forever for Tara to make friends. Maybe it’s better to say it used to take forever for Tara to make friends. Being around Willow had changed her. She wasn’t scared of her own shadow anymore. She still stammered or stuttered a little when talking with Lisa, but she didn’t let it stop her from talking. Lisa didn’t seem to notice her shyness.
They weren’t destined to be close friends. Lisa was too busy with this and that. She had a fiancé and she knew what she was going to do with her life. Tara was still a little lost herself, but she had respect for anyone who had plans for the future, especially when those plans included getting well away from Sunnydale. They were sit-and-chat friends and that was enough.
This afternoon Lisa called. She’d never called Tara before. She said she had someone Tara just had to meet. Tara was lonely. It didn’t take much to get her to take the bus to campus.
As they walked along, Tara reminded Lisa, “You do remember, I told you I’m a lesbian?”
Lisa playfully touched Tara’s shoulder, “Of course! It’s not like that. It’s not a date. He’s my cousin, for goodness sake!”
“Who is he?”
“He’s kind of a minister, a religious type.”
“So why are we hurrying to meet him? I don’t think I need a s-sermon.”
“No, no! He’s not a preachy kind of guy. But, he can help you with that Willow thing.”
“Wait a minute. I don’t want to talk about it with some stranger. It’s really personal. Not everybody is going to understand...”
“He’ll understand. You just wait and see. He knows about all kinds of problems, and he help.”
“Does he have any idea of what’s going on in Sunnydale?”
“Tara, who does? We’ve got more weirdoes per capita than Berkeley. It’s just like the big city. You don’t go out alone at night, and when you get home you double check to see the doors are locked.”
“Yeah, but in the big city you worry about getting mugged or shot or raped, not about having your beating heart ripped out, or having some creature eat your brains while you’re still breathing.”
Lisa shuddered, “Don’t talk about it! That happened on my block, not yours. Why do people keep bringing that up?”
Tara objected, “That’s always been the problem with this town. Nobody ever talks about it. It just goes on and if weren’t for...”
Lisa sighed, “I know. These friends of yours go out and kill whatever goes bump in the night. Look, don’t tell that story around Matt. It sounds crazy enough to me. He wouldn’t understand at all.”
Rack stumbled against his drinking companion. “Keep moving, you oaf,” he giggled, “I’ve got an appointment with a bottle... Mickey, did I ever tell you, you’re an oaf?”
His companion woozily complained, “My name is Nick, not Mickey. Mickey was a girl, I think.”
“Stupid girl,” muttered Rack. He laughed, “I think some vamp caught her with some guy’s pants down and ate both of them. Serves her right. She tasted like rooten apples.”
“Rooten apples?” chuckled Nick. “You can’t even talk straight. It’s rotten apples, rot and apples.”
Rack usually got his pleasure from twirling the souls of young, would-be wizards between his finger tips. But it was the season for merriment from a bottle, and who was he to mess with tradition. Plenty of people and demons in Sunnydale hated Rack’s guts. So when he went out on the street like this, he disguised himself with a complicated masking spell. It had to be powerful enough humans wouldn’t recognize him, yet subtle enough every demon in town wouldn’t instantly know there was illusion in the air around him. He could not mask the fact he was stinking drunk. It was broad daylight, and most people were giving the drunken pair a wide berth.
As they staggered toward another bar closer to the UC Sunnydale campus, two young women, deep in conversation, brushed past them without a glance. Rack stopped and stood slack jawed staring at the women as they turned the corner out of sight.
Nick said, “Hey, what’s the matter? One of them a witch you haven’t screwed yet?” The nondescript fellow chuckled at his own question.
Rack replied as if in deep contemplation, “Yeah... But, I know her from somewhere. I know her.. “ After an instant it came to him, “Of course. Damn me for a blackguard and damn her twice, I know her!”
Nick steadied himself against the wall of a dry cleaners, “Okay, I give up. Do I know her?”
“I don’t give a piss if you know her! She’s Willow’s girl.”
“Willow? The wild one?”
“Yeah, Willow, the one chock full of what I like from here to yonder. God, if she had a body to go with it, she’d be Marilyn fucking Monroe.”
“Oh shut up, you ignorant snot. Why do I go drinking with an ignorant snot like you? You couldn’t do magic to save your... Magic hell! You can’t even do card tricks...”
Nick had enough presence of mind to try to keep the subject of the conversation from drifting, “OK, I’m a snot. But, who’s the girl?”
“Yeah, the girl! I don’t like her. If I make my mind up, someday I’m gonna hate her...”
“Who is she?” insisted Nick, as forcefully as someone so drunk can be.
“She’s the one who holds Willow back! She’s the one that keeps Willow thinking there’s something wrong with getting deeper into it. And man, I need to get deeper into it with Willow. She is so... Oh, hell! What the hell do you know about it! You think there is nothing in women, but sex. Do you honestly think there is nothin’ better than just plain sex?”
A woman half a block away heard this outburst and hastily crossed the street to avoid the drunks.
Rack spotted her and shouted, “Go on Get out of here, you magicless slut! Go feed some damn vampire, you worthless...!”
“How do you know it’s her. I mean Willow’s girl.”
Rack snorted, “I’ve got a nose don’t I? I’ve got hands don’t I? I can feel that girl all over Willow every time I touch her.”
“Are they lesbeans?”
“Of course, they’re lesbians, lesbeans, lesbos, or what have you. What difference does that make to me?”
“I mean that would be kinda cool. Two lesbo witches at once, I mean while they were..”
“You idiot! Haven’t you been listening! This one is a goody-goody. If I tried touching her the way I touch Willow my hand would rot and fall off... It’s all her fault Willow doesn’t come back anymore. I know it! ... I ought to teach her a lesson.”
“Which one of the two was she?”
“The tall one.”
“I’d rather teach the other one a lesson. Or let her teach me one.”
“Shut up, Mickey. You know if that girl can’t figure out what’s fun... If she can’t even figure out what sex she is... I’m gonna teach her a lesson tonight..”
“My name is Nick.”
“Shut up and let me do this spell while her essence is still in the area. Then I think, I’ll go find some place to get a drink.”
Lisa and Tara entered Matt’s hotel room. Matt was nearly as tall as Riley, but not nearly so muscular. Tara guessed he was about thirty-five. He might have been handsome except that he was balding, that the hair he had was not particularly well cared for, and that it looked like he needed a shave.
“Lisa, you brought a friend. This is a surprise.”
“Matt, this is Tara McClay. Tara, this is my cousin the Reverend Matthew Preston.”
“Actually, Lisa, I’m not really a...”
“Oh, don’t be bashful, Matt. You may not have gone to the seminary, but you help people just the same.”
“What denomination are you, Mr. Preston?” asked Tara.
“Well, I hate to say nondenominational, but it might describe me best.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m what you might call a personal advisor. I give advice on matters of faith.”
“How do you make money doing that?” blurted out Tara in spite of herself.
Matt chuckled, “There are a great many people willing to pay for a little peace of mind.”
“Rich ones,” laughed Lisa. “Fortunately for Matt, it isn’t just poor people who have problems of faith.”
“You help the poor?” asked Tara.
“Sometimes. I’m a little more comfortable speaking with people with a good education, and often they’re less comfortable discussing their faith. The poor and the ignorant often understand what they believe better than the well-to-do and the educated.”
Lisa smiled, “How about a little free advise for Tara...”
“Whoa!” exclaimed Tara. “I’m not the one with a problem...”
Matt grinned, “You must be very fortunate, if you have no problems, at all. I presume you know someone who does need spiritual help.”
A vision of Buffy flashed through Tara’s mind, “Actually, I know two people, but one of them is not very likely to listen to you.”
“Uh, no. But, she, uh, has very strong ideas about what the afterlife is like. If you said something she didn’t agree with... Well, it just wouldn’t do any good.”
“And how about the other person?” asked Matt with amusement in his voice.
Odd as it may seem Tara was beginning to feel a certain trust toward this stranger. “She’s, uh, recovering from an addiction problem.”
“And you’re not sure she’s really recovering yet?”
“I guess not.”
“How close is this person to you? Is she a friend? A sister?”
“Uh, a friend.”
“You say that with a little hesitation.”
Lisa interrupted, “Tara and Willow are lovers. They’re both gay.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Matt with obvious surprise, to Tara’s embarrassment.
“Forgive me,” continued Matt. “I was thinking you were the one with the addiction problem. So many people try speaking in the third person, that I automatically assume they need to admit, they’re the one we’re talking about.”
Tara muttered under her breath, “It’s not me!”
Matt stroked the stubble on his chin, “Well, I don’t have the time to go visit your friend, but I do think there is something I can do to help you.”
“Look, dealing with someone with a serious problem can strain every part of your life..”
Tara muttered again, “Like I don’t know that!”
“That’s what I mean. You have feelings too, and your friend, your loved one, is so messed up she can’t even think about what’s happened to you. Do you think that’s she’s been dishonest about the way she feels about you?”
“It’s not as if she cheated on me. I just can’t watch her destroy herself.”
“That’s not what I mean. Has she lied about promises she’s made to you, important promises?”
“Well, yes. She thought she was doing something for my own good, but she was just using me. Taking advantage. I can’t really explain it.”
“And yet you still love her?”
Tara glanced at Lisa before she answered. “Yeah.”
“Do you feel like you contributed to her problem?”
“Do you feel like your friend wouldn’t have gotten in so deeply if it hadn’t been for you?”
“It’s not my fault.”
“I’m not saying it is. Did you ever try doing what’s gotten her into such trouble?”
“Tara’s eyes betrayed her and her voice failed her for a moment, “I-I-I never did what she’s been... doing... I-I-I wouldn’t.”
“But, you have experimented with it haven’t you.”
Tara refused to answer, but Matt went on as if she’d freely admitted it. “Look Tara, you can’t feel bad because you’ve come away better than she did. You did what you did and she did what she did.”
Tara struggled to say, “So, what now? Are you going to tell me that God is going to solve all my problems?”
“The God I know doesn’t work that way,” replied Matt.
A cold chill ran through Tara’s spine. “Who are you? What do you want?” she demanded. She’d seen too many demons in Sunnydale that worshipped things she didn’t even want to think about.
“Easy!” said Matt calmly, but firmly. “What are you afraid of? ... I’m just a man who looks at God as something other than a crutch.. Saying prayers isn’t going to change things for everybody. You know it, too. People want so many things that conflict with what other people want. You can’t expect God to answer all your prayers. But, you can live your life the best way you know how, and you’ll be surprised how much good can come of that.”
“You’re not ... e-evil?”
Matt was honestly shocked, “What?”
Lisa interrupted, “Matt, it’s a Sunnydale thing. When something is different around here everybody assumes it’s evil.”
Matt laughed gruffly, “Unfortunately, that is not just a Sunnydale thing! Listen Tara, am I beginning to make any sense to you?”
As the afternoon wore on toward evening, Tara began to open up to Matt about how she really felt about Willow. She noticed that whenever she got close to explaining that Willow’s addiction was to magic, Matt began to lose track of what she was saying. So she pretended that Willow was addicted to drugs. It took longer to explain things because she kept having to convert problems with the power of magic into something to do with drugs. Tara knew virtually nothing about drugs, and Matt kept catching her when she made mistakes. It seemed as though she were giving him the impression that she indeed had a drug problem of her own. It was awful. But, yet she did feel like he was telling her something she needed to hear. And the longer she talked the more she wanted to listen to him.
When the sun began to set, Lisa decided to leave. Matt promised to take Tara home safely when they were finished talking. But, they never seemed to finish talking. Tara drifted away from talking about Willow and started explaining the terrible relationship she had with her father. Matt never seemed to lose interest, and never seemed to lack for anything comforting and instructive to say. . They forgot about dinner. When they noticed it was getting late, Matt suggested ordering a pizza. But, he never got around to ordering it. Tara’s life story kept drawing him in and he kept finding inspired ways to make her feel better about herself. Probably they would have gone on talking all night, but it was not to be. At the stroke of midnight there was a crash of thunder in the room and both Matt and Tara toppled over as if dead to the floor.
When Tara awoke the next morning, she had the strange feeling that she had been leaning against someone all night.
She opened her eyes, and realized she was lying on the floor. The phone rang. She tried to call out, “Mr.. Preston?” but something large seemed jammed in her throat, and she could only half croak the words rather than say them. She tried coughing to clear her throat, but it didn’t help. The phone kept ringing. With her mind still on her throat Tara reached out to answer the phone. She clumsily knocked the receiver onto the table, before she got a grip on it.
“Hello?” she croaked into the mouth piece.
“Hi Matt. It’s Lisa. How’d it go with Tara last night?”
“I’m not ...” Tara tried to reply, but her speech was so awkward she couldn’t go on.
“Not sure you’ve done everything for her you can, I know. But, you’re only going to be in town for a couple days, and you’ve got a paying client to see this morning. Don’t forget. They’ll call for you at 9:00 am, and please try to shave this morning. you looked kinda bushy yesterday. Listen, I’ve gotta run, if you can, call me before you leave town... OK?”
“Lisa...” croaked Tara.
“Bye Matt.” The line went dead.
Tara tried rubbing her throat. She shuddered. It felt completely wrong to the touch and the underneath side of her throat. was unbelievably scratchy. Fearfully, Tara looked down at what should have been her hand. She shrieked, or rather she croaked plaintively in a voice not her own. “My God! He switched bodies with me!”
Tara looked wildly about the room and was shocked to see her own body lying not more than three feet away, behind her. She reached out with strange hands. “Wake up! Wake up! You’ve got to wake up! Something’s wrong, Mr. Preston.” But, Tara’s body wouldn’t wake up. It wasn’t exactly dead, but it looked desperately unhealthy. It breathed, but the face looked empty and waxy, the way she’d felt inside when Glory had scrambled her senses. But, ironically Tara wasn’t inside any more, she was distinctly where she shouldn’t be, with no idea of how she got there.
“Mr.. Preston!” she called out again, this time with the voice smoothing out to a more natural baritone. “Are you here, Mr. Preston?”
As if in answer, there was a knock at the door to the hallway. “Mr. Preston?” called out Tara trying to get to her overlarge feet.
A voice replied, “Miss? I’m here to help you.”
Tara wobbled toward the door. “Who are you? What’s happened?” she shouted.
The voice replied again, “Not so loud, Miss! Open the door!”
Tara fumbled to get the door-chain hooked before unlocking and opening the door a crack. “Who are you?”
“I'm Ni... Mickey. Open up, unless you want to stay that way.”
“What’s happen to me?” demanded Tara.
“Not so loud! Do you really want to get caught in the same room with her body, er, your body looking like that?”
Tara glanced back. “Oh, God!”
“Yeah, the cops would probably figure it was some horrible sex thing that went wrong. The cops really love that kind of thing here. Makes up for the fact they can’t do a damn thing about the vamps and demons. Yeah, they love sex offenders here...”
Tara did not open the door. “How did I get this way?”
“Let me in, I’ll tell you.”
“No! Who are you, and how did you know this happened?
Nick-Mickey jammed his shoe in the crack before answering. “I’m a muh’shu demon.”
Tara tried to slam the door closed.
“Good grief, my toes! God, that guy stronger than he looks! Miss, I’m a good demon, a good one.”
“What’s a moo shoe demon?”
“It sounds like one that likes Chinese-style pork. I’m a muh’shu demon. Muh’, muh’, muh’! We’re good guys... Come on, lady. I can help. Your body is alive, I promise.” Nick pulled his foot back.
Tara closed the door to pull the chain free. When the door opened again Nick slipped in and closed the door himself.
Nick glanced at the male figure standing beside him and then took a long look at the figure on the floor. “Sheesh, you look awful, Miss. What happened before the spell hit?” Nick wondered a loud.
“Nothing, happened! Spell? What kind of spell?”
“It’s pretty clear, it was one to get you in his body, isn’t it?”
“What happened to Mr. Preston?”
“Can’t you tell? Give yourself a moment. You’ll know.”
Tara turned her thoughts inward for a moment. “He’s still in here. No wonder it felt like I was leaning on somebody. Is he dead?”
“No, no.. Just asleep.”
“Asleep? Can I wake him up?”
“Not a good idea. He’s used to that body. He’d be in control. You’d never get out and he’d think he had a split personality. Both of you would probably spend the rest of your life in a men’s prison for killing her,” he said gesturing toward Tara’s body.
“You just said I’m not dead.”
“Of course, you are not dead. But, your body has got maybe a day. The lower brain is still functioning, but it won’t last long with the rest of you gone.”
“But, if I woke him up couldn’t he help?”
“This is magic, Sweets. You’re a witch. You ever try convincing a civilian that magic is real? It ain’t pretty. Mr. Preston or whatever would just think he’d gone nuts. Let him sleep... He won’t wake up unless you try, so just let sleeping guys lie.”
Tara frowned oddly. She looked distracted.
“What’s the matter, Miss?”
“I have to... He needs to.. use the bathroom.”
“Heck, go ahead,” he said gesturing toward the door at the back of the room. “It can’t be that different..”
A look of disgust spread across Matt Preston’s face, but Tara headed for the bathroom.
Before Tara opened the door to the little room, Nick added hastily, “Don’t forget. You ought to aim.”
Brief minutes later, Tara emerged shuddering, “God! That was gross!”
Nick did not mean to, but he stared long enough at the small damp spot on the front Mr. Preston’s pants, that Tara noticed. There was loud a mortified groan.
“It takes practice, Miss. You’ll figure it out.”
“I don’t want to figure it out!”
“No, I guess not... Well, I guess you want to know what happened? You’ve got a friend named Willow?”
“Willow did not do this! She didn’t do this to me, did she?” pleaded Tara.
“Nah, you ever hear of a guy named Rack.”
“Well, you might say he’s a new friend of Willow’s. He loves witches. He’d love you, but you’d kinda have to be willing to walk on the naughty side, if you get my drift.”
“And Willow’s been walking on the dark side?”
“Yeah, but not enough to suit Rack. He thinks it’s your fault. Nothing personal. He doesn’t even care that much, but he was drunk last night...”
“A drunk did this to me?”
“Technically, yeah. But, don’t expect him to undo it. He doesn’t really hate you, but he wouldn’t see you now. Don’t even think about finding him. He’s powerful enough he could fry your brain, in an instant and Willow’s, too. He wouldn’t undo the spell, and no matter what you did to him, you’d still be stuck this way.”
“So how do I undo it.”
“Well, there are three ways. Well, two ways..”
“Come on, Mickey.” Tara begged.
“Well, you could have a dark confluence with Rack. It’s kind of like sex with magic, but without the sex... That didn’t come out right.. Anyway, Rack thinks you’re too careful with your magic. It would probably kill him. He wouldn’t try it. ”
“Is that what Willow has been doing?”
“Yeah, she’s pretty much hooked. A lot of witches get hooked. You better not worry about her problems now, unless you want to be a bald guy the rest of your life. Anyway there are two ways to break the spell. The easy way, if you ask me, is to have sex with Willow in this form.”
“ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND! Willow wouldn’t have sex with me like this!”
“Heck, you’re a big guy. She wouldn’t have to agree to...”
“Don’t say it, you.. weasel. Don’t even think it, you disgusting... THING!”
“Not a good choice for you? Okay, the last option is the hard one. You have to accomplish everything in one day that Preston would have.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have to fulfill all his commitments. Do his job. Pay his bills. Walk his dog...”
“He’s from out of town. This is his hotel room. He was supposed to be here till tomorrow.”
“So maybe you’re in luck. Figure out what he was doing here. Do it... Call his wife this evening and you’re home free.”
“He’s not married, but he’s got a girlfriend. He told me last night. I don’t know her name. How I’m I supposed to call her?” said Tara panicking.
Nick waved his hand dismissingly, “Forget it. A guy never HAS TO call his girlfriend.”
“Easy for you to say!”
“Cruel, but true.”
“Why did I get switched into Mr. Preston anyway?”
“First-guy-you-talk-to-after-the-spell-is-cast kinda thing.”
“That’s what I get for talking to men.” grumbled the male voice.
“Just out of curiosity, Miss, what’s your name?”
“Tara... You don’t know my name! How did you..? Oh, forget it. You’re a good demon?”
“Yeah, a muh’shu. No horns, no baby gobbling, none of that stuff.”
“So what is a muhkshu? What makes you a demon?”
Nick shook his head at her pronunciation, “It’s a demon without magic.”
“A lot of demons don’t do magic,” replied Tara.
Nick smiled pleasantly. “You’ve had experience with a lot of demons? How about that! No, Tara, a muh’shu isn’t just one that can’t do magic. We can’t be affected by magic. At least not directly. Rack likes going drinking with me because he can throw lightning bolts at me, and they just bounce away...”
Tara lowered Preston’s brow. “You go drinking with Rack? Were you drinking with him last night?”
“Well, yes. How else would I know about all this?”
“You’re supposed to be good, and you didn’t stop him from doing this?”
“Well, I felt really bad about it. I came to help you this morning didn’t I?”
“What else do I need to know?”
“I guess that’s it. Do his business and at midnight you’re back over there. Don’t do it and you’re stuck over here.”
“Fine. In that case get out, and let me get to it.”
“Wait aren’t you a little grateful? I mean I didn’t have to come all the way over here.”
“If I get back to normal, I’ll worry about being grateful.” Tara grabbed the demon and shoved him out the door. “If you’re really a good demon, you’ll get lost for now.”
“Okay, but...” The door slammed in his face.
Tara easily lifted her own body off the floor and put herself in bed on her side. She tucked her form in with her face under the covers. She hoped the maid wouldn’t disturb someone in bed who was obviously breathing. She did wish she was breathing more deeply, but she didn’t exactly have any control over that.
Soon, Tara was back in the bathroom looking in the mirror. She ran a hand over the dark stubble. “Well, at least he has an electric razor.” she said to herself. She got the razor to start buzzing. She quickly rubbed it over the lower part of his face. “No worse than my legs,” she muttered. She touched the bare-looking spot she’d made with a his finger. “Well, maybe a little worse...” She rubbed and scrubbed with the razor. Finally, she paused and examined Preston’s face, “Pfff, not perfect , but better than he did it, yesterday!” A few more rubs with the razor and she decided it was enough. She looked more carefully into the mirror, then dug into his shaving kit. “Doesn’t he have anything like makeup to put on this awful face. Rugged is good on a guy, but this is too... Mr. Preston your girlfriend must be a saint! ... Okay, so who am I to talk? Too heavy, too plain, too shy, too me. You can’t cure that Mr. Preston.” She glanced up into the mirror and pointed, “But, I’d rather be me than this.”
By 9:00 am Tara had put on a suit and felt glad that she’d helped her brother put on a tie a few times. She didn’t feel ready, but the phone rang right on time.
“Hi Matt, it’s Steve. So sorry I wasn’t in town yesterday when you got in. I was expecting you to fly in this morning. Good thing my secretary went to the office yesterday.”
“Yeah, good thing.”
“You ready to go? I can pick you up in ten minutes. You want to wait outside the hotel.”
A few moments of butterflies were wasted. Tara didn’t have too worry about not recognizing the guy. Steve hopped out of his car and came straight toward her. A brisk, firm handshake later they piled into Steve’s car. It was only after they started down the street and her stomach settled just a little, that she realized she’d seen this fellow somewhere.
“I really want to thank you for coming, Matt. I know what you’re charging me is barely going to cover your expenses, but I didn’t know where else to turn with this.”
Tara tried to be brave, “Well, what is the problem?”
“I’ve got a student, well she was my student a few terms ago...” That was it. Tara had seen the fellow at UC Sunnydale. Steve must be a professor. “She just kind of disappeared from campus. I saw her the other day on the street so I know she’s still in town. She looked awful, like the life had been sucked out of her. Well, that’s not so odd in this town, but you don’t see it in broad daylight. She’s really talented, but she got in with the wrong crowd some how... If I called in one of the counselors from school, some smart ass would get the idea I was involved with her. I’m not, no way. But, she’s a great student and hell, the state is looking to make cuts this year. Every student major is worth gold. Hell, it could mean jobs, my job, maybe. If you don’t have students tenure doesn’t mean squat.”
Tara spoke up, ‘I had no idea getting students was a problem in your department.”
“Well, it’s always tough when ...”
Tara’s mind blotted out what he was saying. She remembered who Steve was now. He was Dr. Linsky from Willow’s department.
“... and I don’t think it hurts to help out a student with the kind of potential she has.”
Tara replied because it seemed like Linsky wanted to hear something at this point, “Well, you have to be careful in a situation like this. The wrong person could find out, and then where would you be? Maybe we should leave sleeping... dogs lie”
“You’re not backing out are you? You promised you’d help if I ever needed you...”
“Well , if I promised, I guess I have to do it.”
Linsky laughed, “Matt, you’ve got that stupid serious-act down perfect. If I wasn’t your roommate back at Indiana, I’d think I had you fooled.”
Tara forced a grin onto Preston’s face.
Linsky switched the topic to fishing. Luckily, Tara thought to say Preston hadn’t had much time for that lately. As Linsky babbled on, she could smile nod and say, “Uh huh,’ at the right moments without revealing she detested fishing, after spending so many wasted hours trying for catfish on the river back home.
Then Linsky turned his car up a street familiar to Tara, Hadley. They weren’t that far from... The car turned onto Ravello, and Tara had to fight down her fear. Linsky pulled into the drive at 1630, and the only thing on Tara’s mind was ‘don’t let Willow be home.’
Before Tara’s mind could crystallize on an excuse not to go in, they were already at the front door. Linsky rang the bell, and it was Willow herself who answered the door.
“Hi, Professor Linsky.” said Willow in a voice weaker than usual. “Buffy! Professor Linsky from school is here!”
“Why?” came the Slayer’s voice from back in the kitchen.
Linsky asked., “Can we come in?”
“Sure,” said Willow. “Excuse the way it looks all looks. The place is a mess.” They entered the house. The place was not a mess. It did not look like any demons had torn through the place in weeks.
Tara could not take her eyes off Willow. She looked ill. She looked like she had been ill for a long time. No wonder Linsky had asked Preston to come...
“This is Willow Rosenberg a former student of mine.”
“And this is the person I wanted you to meet. Buffy Summers.”
Preston’s heart skipped a beat.
“Uh, hello,” said Buffy, “Professor, I don’t know...”
Linsky interrupted, “Buffy was in a couple of classes of mine her freshman year. Buffy, I’ve talked to Willow recently, and we agreed that you could use a little professional help...”
“Willow?!” complained Buffy.
“Look, Buffy, you have to admit you haven’t been yourself, lately.”
“Willow, you are so dead!”
“Matt Preston here is a nationally recognized expert. He can help you, whatever your problem is.”
“This is my home, professor!”
“Look, Willow and I agreed that something needed to be done. This is all unofficial. No one will ever know. Matt isn’t a psychiatrist, or one of those god-awful group counselors. He knows his stuff. He will help.”
Buffy grumbled, “I knew I shouldn’t have gotten up so early!”
There was something in Buffy’s demeanor that Tara noticed. She was sarcastic as usual , but she wasn’t being nasty, she hadn’t actually said she didn’t need help, and of course, she could have easily tossed them out already. Tara got the feeling that just maybe Buffy was ready for help.
Linsky was still trying, “I know this is New Year’s Eve and you probably have plans for tonight. But, if you could just give Mr. Preston a couple hours this...”
Tara spoke up, “Steve, why don’t you go for a drive. I don’t think Miss Summers wouldn’t mind talking for a few minutes. If she wants me to go after that, I’ll go.”
“Sure, Matt... Willow you want to go for a drive?”
Tara remembered Dawn. “Is there anyone else around?”
Buffy volunteered, “No, my sister is practicing with her school band all day. They’re marching in the annual Sunnydale parade tomorrow.” Buffy made an exaggerated gesture emphasizing her next tongue-in-cheek comment, “Really big deal in this town!”
As soon as the others had left, Buffy started talking, “Look, I don’t want to be rude. But, I just agreed to do this because, Willow, my housemate, is pretty fragile, right now. I didn’t want to make a scene because she doesn’t need any...”
Tara cut in, “I know who you are.”
“You’re the Slayer aren’t you?”
“Just how much did Willow tell you?” asked Buffy uneasily.
“It isn’t what Willow told me. I know a few things about the... demons and creatures of this world. They told me Buffy Summers was the Slayer.”
“Spike? Was it that blabber mouth Spike?”
“I don’t know him. Look, you can trust me Miss Summer’s. They say, ... some of the creatures say you were dead...”
“Look, I told you.... I mean, I’m not telling you anything. I don’t know you and frankly, I’m not sure what you are.”
“What was it like? When you were gone?”
“Peaceful, which is more than I can’t say about this morning. I’d like you to leave now!”
“Did you touch God?”
“When you were dead, did you touch God?”
“I don’t know... I mean no. I didn’t see any old men with long, white beards, or any angels with white robes or...”
“I didn’t ask you what you saw. What did you feel?”
Buffy’s face contorted in pain, “I-I just felt warm, and loved.”
“And you don’t feel warm and loved here anymore?”
“No, not really...”
“And you can’t relate to things that used to move you, that used to make you feel strongly, before you died?”
“You’ve got a sister. Do you love her any more?”
“Of course, do! But...”
“It isn’t important anymore. I know that in the long run a lot of things I used to worry about aren’t important. I love Dawn. I want the same things for her, I did before. But, I know some of it isn’t really important... Does that make sense? Dawn has to live, that’s important. She has to live and be happy and...”
“What about you? Are you living and trying to be happy?
“Living, yeah. Happy?... It’s just that I was so happy there. I can’t be happy like that here.’
“Why would you want to be happy like that here. Aren’t there things here for you to be happy about? Different things? If it’s worthwhile for Dawn to be happy, isn’t it worth it for you?”
“Well sure, but... Somehow I feel like I know you. Are you...? No this is silly, I don’t want to talk about it. None of it.”
“Buffy, can you tell me one thing? Is there anything you look forward to now? Isn’t there anything that makes you glad you’re alive?”
“Well, there’s a guy...”
“That’s great! I-I mean, it’s good, you have someone. Is it someone you met recently?”
“No, I’ve known him for awhile, and then again, I feel like I never knew him before.”
“He seems different since you’ve come back?”
“A lot different. I mean I know it’s wrong between the two of us. Hell, everybody thinks I’ve come back from the grave wrong. Even him..”
“But, you loved him before you died, didn’t you?”
Buffy laughed, “No chance! No way! I didn’t love him then, and I don’t love him now. I can’t stay away from him, though. I want to be with him so much, but sometimes I just want to punch him in the nose again!”
“Spike!” blurted Tara.
“What? You said you didn’t know him! What the hell do you know about Spike and me?”
“What are you? Some kind of demon!” Buffy grabbed by the front of the shirt and the tie and jerked Preston to his feet.
Tara gasped. Buffy was an instant from killing both Preston and her. “N-n-no, I-I-I just want to help!”
Buffy grasped tighter. Tara was choking. Buffy demanded, “Start talking and I mean fast!”
Fast? The more scared Tara was, and the more she wanted to speak, the more she stuttered, “B-B-B-Buffy, p-p-p-p-please!”
Buffy’s jaw dropped, “Tara?”
“P-p-p-please, it hurts!”
Buffy released her grip, “What’s happening? Have I gone insane?”
“Buffy, I just wanted to help. Preston was supposed to help you...”
“Who did this, Tara?”
“Somebody named Rack.”
Buffy thundered, “Rack! First Willow and now you? I’ll teach that bastard what his name means, and then I’ll start thinking about hurting him!”
“No, Buffy, it won’t do any good! He doesn’t have any control over the spell now! Preston was supposed to help you! The only way I can get back is for you to let me help you. Talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong with you. Maybe I can’t solve all your problems, but at least we can make a start. I don’t want to die, I don’t want to stay like this! Let me help you, Buffy!”
It took time before Tara convinced Buffy it was a waste of time to do research on the subject. Buffy volunteered that it was out of the question to ask Willow to see if she could undo the magic. Buffy was extremely upset that she was a pawn in some game of Rack’s, and Tara had difficulty explaining that Rack had no idea she would be drawn into it. Buffy said over and over that Tara would not understand how she felt, and Tara pleaded over and over to let her try.
When Linsky and Willow returned, Buffy was convinced enough to ask them to leave again,... for the day. Tara and Buffy talked all day and into the evening. Buffy kept saying they were getting nowhere, and Tara as time passed grew more fearful she was right. They talked about Spike, about Willow, about Dawn, about heaven or whether it was just a heavenly dimension, but nothing seemed to change Buffy’s mood. Dawn came home, and wouldn’t stay out of the room. So Buffy left with ‘Mr. Preston.’ She and Tara walked and talked till it was late. People were gathering at the bars for New Year’s Eve parties. Buffy had to patrol, because surely of all nights there would be vampires out to prey on the careless. Buffy went all the way to the hotel with Tara, and back to Preston’s room. All she could tell Tara when she left was that one way or the other they would see each other the next day.
Tara felt she had failed. Buffy seemed no better. But, what could Preston have done for her anyway? He never would have learned about Spike. He probably would never have guessed that Buffy had been dead. Guessed? It was ridiculous. Of course, he wouldn’t guess such a thing! He wasn’t from Sunnydale. He didn’t know about such things. But, Tara admitted to herself that Preston had helped her the night before. He was good at what he did. How could she possibly do what he could have done. How could one person ever do what another might have done?
Tara was exhausted. She and Preston’s body fell asleep long before midnight.
Preston awoke the next morning. He felt as if someone had beat him over the head until he was senseless. But, oddly his head wasn’t sore. He was surprised to wake up in the first bed in the room. When he traveled he always slept in the bed closer to the bathroom. He sat up and noticed someone was in that other bed. Surely that girl, Tara, hadn’t stayed the night? At least she was in a different bed. He had nothing to worry about on that account.
Preston got up, and went to the sleeping figure. It was Tara, all right. But, to his horror there was a vacant, almost waxy expression on the face. The body breathed, but there was something seriously wrong with it.
“Tara! Miss McClay! Wake up!”
The eyes fluttered opened, and she made a horrendous gasp as if she had been drowning. The eyes focused, and she spoke awkwardly, but clearly, “Mr. Preston? Happy New Year!”
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