The Apothecary
CHAPTER ONE

Author: Phoenix
Rating: PG to start with, though that will change...
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the property of Joss Whedon/Mutant Enemy/etc.
Feedback: Please! tara_the_phoenix@yahoo.ca


Tara could not deny that she had been scouring the live security feed from downstairs, delighted and dismayed to find a familiar woman making her way through the poppy den. The woman wove through the stupefied multitude with necessary tolerance and a considerable lack of grace, stepping over an arm or a leg as needed, apologizing as she bumped her way to her habitual spot. Though she had become a common face in the den, she did not hail anyone as friend. She had remained aloof, lounging

(in bleakness)

in faked ease, the gold buttons of her silk shirt revealing more of her modest cleavage than she ever would in any place but this. She had coughed the first time she drew smoke through the poppy pipe, and the lighted coal that kept the tincture hot had barely illuminated the face of a woman skirting with disaster and despair.

That had been several months ago. The woman did not cough any more.

Tara continued to watch as the woman continued through the den, exiting through the nondescript doors that led to the upper levels. Tara bid her heart not to beat in such a frenzy; the woman had made it this far at least two times before today. Today she did not pause at the reek of the stairwell, the sweet incense and bleach not quite concealing the odours of burnt poppy and urine. Many would falter there, at the smell, at the Chinese and skater symbols deliberately spray-painted on the walls. They would not pay the price

(no one is immortal but me)

and would retreat back to the poppy den, ready to haze their disappointments with the narcotic blessing of opium.

Whatever demons possessed this woman, they had finally driven her up the stairs. Through the increased tempo of her heart, Tara could barely hear the woman deliberately making noise as she ascended the stairs. Would she know to stop on Tara's level, or could she possibly be going further upstairs, her troubles and the faint smell of poppy driving her onward?

Tara hoped not. The price was always too high to pay. Poppy already clouded this woman's green eyes, her senses, dulled her pain. She needed what only Tara could provide, and no more.

(just a perfect dream, please

please help me forget!)

Tara allowed herself one more moment to look at the unnamed woman through the vid screen; her face was young and determined, her red hair impeccably coiffed and styled, her eyes the blighted green that had first captured Tara's interest those months ago. Tara had been afraid that the woman would eventually make her way upstairs to Tara's door, simultaneously afraid and hopeful.

This woman was a fool, and Tara was damned.

Tara finally turned from her screen to put on the kettle. The woman would want tea, and a miracle. Tara wanted only a kiss.

(just on the forehead, as always)

When it was over, would the woman forgive her? Did she deserve her forgiveness?

The woman would arrive any moment, and Tara looked at herself in the mirror. Gilded with gold, the mirror revealed a pale-faced woman whose cobalt eyes were filled with equal parts excitement and self-loathing. Sleek blonde hair whispered at her shawl-lined shoulders, and her entire frame was small and perfect; her beauty a weapon as sharp as any sword and wielded with equal dexterity on both men and women alike.

There was no sign at the door that led to Tara's den; her clientele knew exactly where she worked. Only new clients would pause in indecision and fear. Tara heard a pause before the dull wooden bead curtain clattered at her arrival. Tara calmed herself, drew in several deep breaths. Only then did she walk through the silk curtain that separated her living quarters from her storefront den, whisking through the fabric with not even a hint of noise. Tara wanted one moment, at least, to look.

The woman's eyes were wide and almost childlike as she took in Tara's strange den. It resembled a tea parlour more than anything else, with long mahogany shelves crawling across three walls, crammed from floor to ceiling with books. Her books were Tara's solace and great joy, thousands upon thousands of titles shelved haphazardly, with nary a care for the alphabet. Not merely tomes on dreams or the occult, but also volumes on Everett's Theory of Quantum Mechanics

(many worlds)

and the latest Stephen King. Some were in Spanish, French, Romanian. Her clients would wonder if she could actually read them, or if she was just being pretentious. Tara let them wonder.

(Fereste-te de omul Ónsemnat de Dumnezeu!)

Tara's heart smouldered in impatience, wanting the woman to turn around, so she could finally see her face, to see what only she could see, what the vid screen could never show her, no matter how long she stared upon it.

(cracker jack ring)

Finally sensing Tara's presence, the woman turned around, her hands clutching reflexively on the handle of her purse.

And Tara knew.

The red hair was a source of constant contention for her as she hovered between short and curly or sleek and long and which would make her appear older. She didn't trust her hairdresser. Freckles were a bane as a teenager and only now was she moderately proud of them. She considered her nose to be her best feature, though Tara thought it was her mouth. She wore shoes that gleamed as if they had been spit polished by the Devil himself. Her socks would be threadbare at the heels, darned with a hand trembling with alcohol and memory. The cut of her clothing was considerable. It was a very practiced casual outfit, remarkable in colour, too desperate to be random. She was well-off, or perilously close to it, but it was not inherited wealth. She had worked hard for it, every step of the way, and a tiny measure of class resentment shone in her face.

(one step above a tinker are you? Your parents are academics.)

She was almost thirty years old, younger than Tara herself, and she thought she was a failure in life and in love, despite her money. Her fingernails were unpainted and cut short; she used a computer often. Today she wore a beautiful watch, all gold and chip diamonds, but Tara knew that she usually wore one with three alarms, two different time zones, and an indiglo light. She wore a single ring on one hand, made of plastic, and Tara knew it came from a cracker jack box and was a source of constant hope and despair for her.

(oh my dear one)

Did Willow sleep with that ring on? Did she remember the fingers that gave it to her, the sharp smell of horse manure at the fair, the dancing lights and the laughing music, the crunch of popcorn from the cracker jack box?

Some destinies were writ in stone. There was blood in Willow's past, and in her future as well. Would Tara's dream be enough to ease her?

There was a conflicting scent arising from her; she had washed her hair this morning with a strong coconut rinse

(you bought it at WalMart, didn't you, instead of buying the subtle stuff from the salon)

she used Glysomed hand lotion, and then spritzed herself with Chanel, hoping it would help her appear strong and confident and womanly. Her handbag matched her outfit, and hung awkwardly from her shoulder, unaccustomed weight and bearing. She hunched in her shoulders slightly, whether from bad computer posture or from protecting herself, Tara couldn't tell.

A perfect client.

Tara still didn't know her profession, though. What did this woman do to make her unwelcome money, that left her seeking narcotic escapes and finally soporific dreams?

"Hi, I'm Willow," the woman said, stretching out her hand. Tara took it warmly, and held it longer than was commonly practiced in western culture, seeking to throw the woman off balance.

Willow.

Her parents were certainly academics, and it was likely her mother's choice of name. Not only a name; a weapon as well, and her mother used it to prove to her own tightly-wound parents

(jumped up tinkers, maybe farmers now, and practicing Protestants)

that she was well-educated and erudite, and there was no need to use heirloom names. Willow was a break in tradition, the physicality of a family schism, and Tara doubted she'd met her mother's parents more than once or twice.

Still holding Willow's hand, Tara asked softly, "Are your mother's parents still alive?"

There was a tiny tug, as if Willow wanted her hand back. Her face, already guarded and wary, now showed a considerable amount of confusion which she didn't try to hide. "What?"

Tara released her hand, and Willow immediately clutched her handbag again. Yes. Get her off-balance. First with the handshake

(she must use lotion, her skin is so soft)

and then with the question of her grandparents. "Are your mother's parents still alive?" Tara repeated.

Willow looked as if she wanted to take a step back, but she didn't, and Tara admired her for it. "I think they are. They live in Kansas. I..." and she paused, and Tara knew she was debating whether or not to reveal such information to a complete stranger. "I don't see them very often," Willow finished lamely.

Ah, yes. Kansas. Tara imagined she could smell the faint odour of chicken manure on her, see an overweight woman in a floral print apron, grey hair covered with a kerchief. She would throw feed and lament her daughter's decisions to uninterested barnyard fowl. Yes.

"My name is Tara," she revealed, using her soft and seductive voice. She imagined using that same soft breath to puff at the delicate skin of Willow's wrist. Willow would shiver. "Will you have tea with me?" she asked, the bracelets on her wrist tinkling brightly as she wrapped her shawl arm around Willow's shoulders, not quite touching her, almost herding her to the single table covered with a pristine chintz tablecloth. Tara wondered if Willow was evaluating her clumsiness, hoping she wouldn't spill tea on the tablecloth.

"Um, okay," Willow said, mustering her failing courage and lifting her chin triumphantly, as if trying to prove she was in complete control of the situation, even when it was completely obvious that she was not. Tara had done this a thousand times or more. She knew exactly what she was doing.

Did Willow know she would pay in both money and time? Had anyone warned her of the dangers of Tara's loft, the softness of Tara's hands?

(no devil could be more seductive)

There was no heaven for Tara.


Continue to The Apothecary Chapter Two


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