PG, gen, Tara, Doyle. On the road to Sunnydale, Tara meets a guardian angel.
When Tara’s mother was still alive, she used to get up in the early morning, the dew time, and Tara would sit on the counter in the kitchen, legs swinging, and watch her make patterns, first with one finger on the frosted window and then in maple syrup on pancakes, and be happy.
Afterwards she wasn’t happy like that. Not in that innocent way that had tasted as sweet as the syrup, but in other, secret ways, like when she walked down the street with her head down and passed a pretty girl, or when she made her own patterns out of light and magic, walking home through the woods where her family couldn’t see.
“Dance like no-one’s watching,” her mother had said. “Sing like you don’t care.”
Happiness came in drips and drops all through that year, through SATs and admissions and cold mornings running to the mailbox, but she didn’t sing. Not then. Not until a day in late September when she walked out the front door dragging her suitcase did she serenade the autumn sky.
She was late. There were things that had had to be done – there was Donny and his new job, he had no business to cook and clean, and Cousin Beth was settling into school. Tara should have left days ago.
But she had left now. Her one box had been packed and sent on, the registration papers were dog-eared and worn from being read so many times, and she had walked out that door singing with the deep-down knowledge, deep in her heart and mind and soul, that she was never coming back.
On the bus, she got stuck next to an old lady noisily sucking butterscotch. Her legs were cramped and her head was aching from the window glare, but she sang to the desert and the open sky, mile after mile into California.
In Los Angeles, in a bar, she ordered something orange, definitely not freshly squeezed, that the bartender gave her with a spin of the glass round his finger and no further comment. She took a lethargic sip, missing the undercut of vodka; her driving license, unequivocal in its truth, burned a hole in her pocket and she didn’t dare ask for a shot. She wasn’t going to drink here, so far from home and Donny and his piss-weak beer, warm from being stored in the outhouse. Her mother had given her a lick of rum from the Christmas pudding, a few drops added to her coffee when she was ill, a glass of champagne on her sixteenth birthday. She had died a few days afterwards and after that there was temperance in the house.
Tara spun on her stool, unable to stop the brief thrill of excitement of being so far from that house it was measurable in kilometres, miles, state boundaries, on the way to a life she would make new. The world turned as she turned, and she took in dull faces of patrons, the gleam of spilled liquid on the floor, the slumped bulk of the man on the next stool, his eyes dim and half-closed. She was dizzy in a dive and loving it.
The man jerked suddenly as her gaze rested on him; inclining his head towards her, he asked, “Not from round here, darlin’?”
Thick with alcohol and brogue, it was nonetheless a pleasant voice. Tara shook her head dumbly.
“And who’d you be?” he asked, and Tara hesitated before answering. A small-town girl through-and-through, she’d heard too much of the perils of the big city. Her father talked of Satan’s agents in places like this; Donny merely yearned for working girls and leered until Tara couldn’t look at him.
Thinking of that, she narrowed her eyes and felt into her mind and saw, gradually and all at once, the spread of colour around the stranger. His aura was green, blue in places, jagged in others. It was new. Tara opened her mouth to tell him her name.
His body jerked, and Tara in her turn jerked away; she saw fear. He flailed, slipping from the stool and screaming in the lowest voice he could, clutching at his head. The aura, fading from Tara’s consciousness, flashed red and she felt the depth of the change.
The bartender scurried across. “What the hell is he at now,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. “Hit him on the head, miss.”
Tara didn’t, and she wondered if it were actually possible to cause him more pain than he was in already. He was sitting up a little now, muttering to himself, and as she drew closer his voice raised. “Holy fuckin’ mother of Christ. Shite.” He raised his head. “Could I have a hand, so to speak?”
Tara held out her hand and he pulled himself to a standing position. “Thanking ye kindly.” He nodded solemnly, pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, scribbled something, put it back, then apparently steeled himself for the next obstacle. “I’ll be ambling drunkenly out if you don’t mind, Tara-girl.”
He suited the action to the word, letting go of Tara’s hand and weaving slowly out of the bar and into the street. Late-night silence settled down once again, but before returning to the untouched orange juice, Tara extended a single finger and used it to twirl the empty barstool. It wasn’t warm, and she wondered if the whole thing had been some sort of weary waking dream. The surreal aspect to girl-meets-boy-in-bar had not escaped her, and she wondered vaguely if this were a Freudian trick played by her subconscious, designed to tell her what she already knew, again.
“Hey!” yelled the bartender suddenly. “Hey, he owes me money!”
Tara nodded to herself. In the ensuing confusion, she drained her glass, clambered down off the stool and grabbed her suitcase handle once again. She wheeled it carefully across the floor and found herself outside in the alley, back in the cool night air and city stillness. Her case made clear clitter-clatter sounds over paving stones sounds above the distant white noise of traffic and people. She wasn’t good with people on this journey, she was finding; she travelled alone, she walked alone, she was going to find a cheap room and spend the night alone.
Clatter, clatter – the wheels made a surprisingly loud noise. She wasn’t going to be alone her whole life, she knew. It was part of the whole new-life thing, this journey. She’d read somewhere, probably in the stacks of the small public library back home, that it wasn’t the destination that mattered, it was the journey.
If this was her journey, that was okay, she thought. She was going to college, and that was okay, too; if she could do it on her terms, she’d take whatever life threw at her from here.
Then she got jumped.
Tara screamed once, twice, and the case that had made so much noise was shoved to the floor along with her. Her attacker was a moving blur, then a force pushing her to the ground, his face close to hers, horribly deformed and distorted with fangs protruding over thin lips.
Vampire, she thought dispassionately. She’d read about them. Her mother had warned her against them. This one was going to kill her. It was all about the journey. This was her last minute on earth. She’d got this far. Vampire. It was clear, too clear. His teeth were in her neck. There would be blood. Her family would never know what happened to her. All about the journey.
She stopped screaming and fell silent, the vampire’s body covering hers. It was okay. Gonna be okay. Would stop hurting in a while. Definitely maybe.
She woke up in a basement. She had been threatened with the scenario before – you go off to college, you get into trouble, see if you don’t, Donny said, and the sexual undertones never escaped her. There were certain trappings that went along with her standard idea of being kidnapped – bonds and gags, for example, or maybe being tied to a chair in a dank and dripping underground room.
This basement, while underground without windows, lacked most of the salient features. Tara was in bed, well wrapped in blankets with two pillows below her head, and the room was warmly lit and strewn with books and other items. She rubbed at her eyes, wondering if the demon-girl and Wiccan in her were allowed a Christian heaven, and if so, where the angels were.
She shifted a little, luxuriated a moment in the warmth – she hadn’t slept for hours before the vampire came along, she remembered – and with careful hands, inspected the damage. Her fingers crawled across her neck, and brushed across plastic. There was a wound there, it hurt under pressure, but had been neatly covered with a Band-aid. She frowned, and regretted it; her head ached. There were scratches on her shoulders that had been cleaned, and with a sudden prickle of fear, she lifted the covers and stared down at her clothes. Her skirt – flowing gypsy, one of her favourites – was crushed from sleeping in it, but otherwise, her clothes were untouched. Her boots had been removed.
Definitely heaven, she decided, and went back to sleep.
Later, it was voices that woke her again. The room was just the same, clearer now her eyes were less sleep-blurred, and no angels had yet made an appearance although she hadn’t quite yet discounted that possibility. The first voice she heard clearly was female and piercingly clear, for all it was in the next room.
“All I’m asking for is some notice! Like, we could be doing, I mean I could be doing any number of important things, like, I don’t know, important things, then wham-bam vision and we have to run off and…”
“Help the helpless?” This voice was dryly humorous and male. “I believe that’s the mission statement recorded on our answering-machine.”
“Well, duh! Does no-one consider my prior commitments?”
“I thought I paid you to ensure you had no prior commitments?”
“You pay me nothing. A girl has needs!”
Tara chose that moment to enter, barefoot and bleary, and found herself in a kitchen. It was as softly lit as the bedroom had been, and more lived-in. The speaker was standing at the fridge, her face hidden, and two men were sitting at the table. At the sound of footsteps, the closest of them got up. Tara opened her mouth and was immediately struck dumb. If she spoke, she would stutter.
“Look who’s up,” said the man.
Tara said nothing.
“You’re going to be all right,” he continued. “You weren’t hurt too badly.”
The other girl reappeared from the fridge. “Don’t you talk or what?” she demanded. “We saved you, the least you could do would be say something. And talking of the least you can do, there’s the matter of the invoice…”
“Shut up, will you?” The last of the three turned so he was sitting the wrong way round on his chair. “You’re scarin’ the poor girl. Sit down and have a bit of breakfast. You’re gonna be just fine. We got to you in time.”
His voice was appealing and familiar. Tara walked stiffly across and took the chair next to him.
“That’s right. Now you’ll be wondering who we are and why you’re here.”
Tara nodded. “The, um, vampire?” she asked, testing her voice and grateful she didn’t stammer too much.
“A big pile of dust, thanks to him over there.” He nodded at his friend, who was hanging awkwardly in the background. “Don’t mind him, he always looks that big and scary. He’s Angel. I’m Doyle. Little miss straight-to-the-point, she’s Cordelia. And who might you be?”
“Tara,” she managed to say, and somewhere in her head his Irish brogue became a piece that clicked into place. “You, you were in the bar last night.”
“Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” asked Cordelia, her voice rich with sarcasm, and Tara noticed the flicker of embarrassment pass over Doyle’s face.
“What bar would that have been, then?”
“It was called…” Tara’s brow furrowed. “Harry’s. You spoke to me. Then you had some sort of, um, fit.”
They exchanged glances. Tara shrank back, regretting it. Automatically, her eyes narrowed to see an aura, but her concentration was off and she sat back in her chair, fearful.
Finally, Doyle said, “Angel and me, we were passing. Gave the vampire a bit of a bashing about the head. You were out of it, so we brought you back here.”
Tara nodded. “Thank you.” She felt she ought to say, thank you for saving my life, thank you for risking your lives for a stranger, thank you, thank you, but the concept of continued life was still a strange one. She’d have to leave here soon, get her things together and go on with her journey as though this had never happened, and the brush with death was lingering on her.
Angel suddenly snapped out of whatever awkward trance he had been in and said normally, “Coffee?”
“Thanks,” she replied, and felt a little bit more normal. She took the mug he held out, shifting as she did so, and her hand knocked something off the table. It was a small piece of paper. She would have returned it unlooked at to the table-top had her own name not caught her eye. She stared.
– attack (vampire?) – outside Harry’s
Tara dropped the paper as if burned. “What’s that?”
Doyle picked it up and heaved a heartfelt sigh. “Angel, you’d think you’d have learnt not to do that.”
“You knew.” Tara was looking from the paper, to Doyle, to Angel, back to the paper again. “And last night you knew, you knew my name.”
Doyle seemed to gather himself. “You told me.”
“I didn’t.” Tara’s memory was sharp as glass. “I was going to, but then I didn’t. You had a… a thing,” she added helplessly.
“He’s epileptic,” said Angel quickly. “Gets them all the time.”
“Funny turns,” Doyle added. “Runs in the family. Coffee?”
Tara nodded mechanically while he poured, measuring the distance across the floor in her head. She was fast; she’d get to the stairs maybe before they caught up, and she’d be able to shout for help once or twice before they gagged her. The other girl – Tara focused on her for a moment – might help her, she was the only one of the three who was quite safe, didn’t smell of otherness.
She shifted her feet from the chair to the floor. She was barefoot, which wouldn’t matter much; she wasn’t running far. She was ready to bolt when Doyle pushed the mug over to her. Her hands were shaking, and he glanced keenly at her, seemingly noting her discomfort. She wouldn’t make it, she knew. But she was on her own journey, ancient places to pastures new, and she’d got this far so she had to try.
She couldn’t hold the coffee, her fingers were still trembling. Her breath came too fast, and god, goddess, deities everywhere, maybe they could smell fear…
“Oh, for god’s sake.” Cordelia slapped a milk jug on the table. “Doyle gets visions of people in trouble,” she announced. “From the PTBs. Then Angel goes to help them. Comprende?”
“Powers That Be,” Tara said faintly. “The Powers.”
“Hallelujah, it speaks.” Cordelia sighed theatrically. “Now you can stop being all rabbit-in-headlights about it and, you know, eat something.”
Tara took a sip of the coffee. A witch’s heart stilled at the Powers, her mother had said. They’d come in the night and saved her. She swallowed and felt better.
Angel and Doyle were exchanging glances. “Um, yeah,” Doyle said at last, with a sideways look at Cordelia, who sniffed. “Probably best if you keep that quiet. There’d be a market for a seer’s eyes round here. So I’ve been told,” he added hastily.
Tara nodded dumbly.
Cordelia hadn’t finished with the coffee yet. “Angel, you want milk? Angel! You can be broody guy all you like – not like we can stop you – but not in company. What’s eating you?”
Angel was looking at Tara. “Are you all right? Do you have somewhere to go?” he asked. “If not, we’re here to help.”
“The helpless, yes,” Tara said, and smiled a little. “I’m going to, um, college.”
By a miracle. “By bus.”
Angel nodded. “Doyle, would you see her off safely? I’m kind of unavoidably detained.”
Cordelia sniffed delicately. “You never make the pretty ones go through the sewers.”
Doyle led Tara back to the small bedroom, stepping around the suitcase on the floor. Behind them, the sound of conversation in the kitchen dropped to a low murmur. “There you are,” he said, nodding at her things. “Bathroom’s through there.”
Tara looked at him for a second, noticing the way the light picked out his wide, pale eyes. His aura was the same colour, still oddly fragmented and shining, different from any she had seen before.
She said, “You’re not human, are you.”
He paused, head moving back slightly. “On my mother’s side, I am,” he said, and his voice was quiet and still.
Not like me, she didn’t say. “I won’t tell anyone.”
His face cleared a little. “I’d be obliged, darlin’.” Beneath the easy tone, he understood it had been a real promise.
“And your friend,” she continued. She wasn’t stuttering at all. “He’s something different.”
“Angel?” Doyle looked up. “He’s a vampire with a soul. Don’t ask. Got me beat, anyway. He actually saves the people, you understand.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m the lowly messenger.” He sounded resigned for a moment, and then his voice lifted. “Unlike you, Tara-girl, you’re the message. Let’s see about gettin’ you delivered.”
They entered the kitchen again to the sound of voices; more specifically, Angel saying, “If Doyle had a vision every time a girl got attacked by a vampire in this city…”
“He’d never stop having them,” Cordelia supplied. “He uses up all my Midol as it is.”
“Too much information, princess,” commented Doyle sourly as he brought Tara back in.
Angel ignored the byplay. “Tara,” he said suddenly, “it’s very important that you get where you’re going.” Before she could say anything, he added, “More than you know, I think.”
Tara nodded. “I came a long way. I have to go.”
“Bye, then,” Cordelia said, sounding bored. As if suddenly remembering something, she added, “You know, California has more gay people than anywhere else in America.”
Angel and Doyle stared at her.
“What? I’m just saying!”
But Tara laughed a little, feeling again the rush of freedom. Thank you, all of you. “Thanks. I’ll remember that.”
Doyle led her out of the basement apartment and outside, where the sunlight glittered off the buildings and the sky above them was bright blue. She wanted to sing again. “I’ll be all right from here.”
“You’re sure?” he asked. “Wouldn’t want you getting in trouble again.”
“I’m sure.” She was, too. This was her journey.
Doyle nodded. “Goodbye, Tara-girl. Look after yourself now.”
She had started walking, dragging her suitcase along behind her, when it occurred to her to stop and turn back, one last time. “Doyle?”
“What is it?” he asked as she came hurrying up. “Forget something?”
“Yes,” she said breathlessly. “Doyle, do you know another word for messenger?”
He shook his head, brow furrowed.
And that time she didn’t look
back, but she could feel the light around him for a block and a half, and she
sang to the sky all the way to Sunnydale.
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