Willow chose the bright floral armchair that faced the entrance. Tara's clients always chose that chair, as if by seeing the exit they could convince themselves that they had the power to flee. Flee, before paying the price. Flee, retreat back to the poppy den, whispering that they had changed their minds before it was too late.
They would always wonder what would have happened up here, what delightful dreams Tara could have created for them.
Tara would sit opposite Willow in a chair equally brash, carefully chosen, the empty tea table between them. A great deal of reflection had gone into those chairs, into the disarray of her bookshelves. The incongruity kept her clients off balance, especially the rich ones. Their very natures were soothed by matching colour palettes, soft lighting, alphabetical ordering of books. Tara's parlour was lit with creamy globes of naphtha, but she used the mismatched furniture as well as the books to keep them on edge. Fingers would twitch to rearrange the books, eyes would blink at brassy chairs. It really worked on the wealthy.
It didn't seem to work on Willow. The girl sitting so carefully in that brash chair probably remembered living as a pauper, with sticky pine boards and bricks for her bookshelves, furniture from the thrift store, and Nipponese ramen noodles for supper. She would have no television, but she would have a laptop computer, and an Interlink connection. No doubt Willow lived in a house now, bright and airy, and she kept that overstuffed chair in the basement as a reminder of how things change. She had a pet, a husky puppy, with eyes the exact shade of Tara's own.
And a cracker jack ring always on her finger.
The kettle whistled in the distance, and Willow wouldn't look at Tara in the eyes. Her fingers curled reflexively on the handle of her purse, her lips tight, swallowing every question that should have poured forth like a waterfall. With a small smile, Tara said, "Excuse me," and disappeared behind the silk curtain, wondering if Willow's eyes followed her, staring at her back, the blonde hair that whispered, the grey silk dress that rustled invitingly over her hips. Would she stare, and then look at her hands, and at the books, and wonder what she was thinking?
Tara shortly returned, bearing a laden tea tray in her hands, and Willow was sitting upright
in her squashy chair, not allowing herself to rest against the back of it. Willow's cream coloured blouse with discreet gold buttons was actually unbuttoned one button more than commonly accepted in western society. She was leaning forward in her chair, and Tara could see the slight swelling of the woman's modest breasts. Tara thought of puffing air on Willow's delicate wrist and swallowed. Lightly. Willow didn't seem to notice.
(I am a demon.)
The gold bracelets on Tara's wrists tinkled as she leaned forward to pour the tea. Willow sat stiffly, building her walls high, unassailable, as if she could somehow keep Tara out. Tara nearly felt sorry for her. Willow had no idea what Tara was capable of.
She would learn, in time.
White tea with jasmine, possibly too floral for Willow's taste. But she took the porcelain cup, sniffing carefully, then she smiled as she sipped the too-hot tea, her face colouring as the hot liquid burned her tongue. Tara pretended not to notice. She took her own cup and sat back in her chair, carefully thrusting her breasts out, just slightly. Just enough.
She had kissed thousands of men and women in that chair. Always on the forehead.
And they were always enchanted by her.
(I am damned.)
The silence was uncomfortable to Willow; it was obvious she was trying to think of something to say, and coming up with nothing. Tara could have smiled in delight. This silence was the sea she swam in, the air she breathed. It was heavy and tight with expectation and fear. Tara could almost taste it on her tongue, honey and jasmine.
What dreams had Willow been having lately, that had sent her to the poppy den, and then into Tara's loft? What sorrows anchored this poor woman's soul?
What kind of dream would she ask for? The woman was obviously uncomfortable in her wealth, in her purchased station in life. Would she ask for a lover to return to her, a tall man with icy eyes and disdain written all over his face? Or would she ask for a situation at work to be resolved the way she desired, a client placated, a boss maligned, a coworker killed? Would she desire only a dream of peace, a slice of heaven too exquisite to be borne, tears wetting the pillow upon awakening from it?
Tara carefully counted a hundred beats of her heart, and waited. Willow was nearly squirming in her seat, and Tara knew that Willow wanted to speak. The silence was too threatening, too close for comfort. A gold necklace hung from her neck, with a single pendant that caressed the skin just below her clavicle. Tara wondered what she tasted like just there.
"What can the apothecary do for you today?" Tara finally asked. She set down her cup of tea, and Willow followed suit. The woman fidgeted; she straightened her pants leg and picked off a short white hair.
(What is her puppy's name?)
"I hear that you... make dreams," Willow said, her voice starting out confident, but faltering under Tara's steady gaze.
"That is true," Tara replied. She said nothing more.
"I'd like to purchase one."
Tara knew that Willow had been about to say 'buy', but changed her mind instantly to say 'purchase' instead, because it sounded more grown-up. Tara wondered if Willow knew just how transparent she was. Tara also wondered what kind of sound Willow would make if Tara puffed air at her wrist, or at her throat.
Or upon her breast.
What would Tara dream of tonight?
(the nightmare, always the nightmare)
And would Willow want a dream of a tall man with icy eyes?
"Of course," Tara said smoothly. "What kind of dream do you wish?" She almost held her breath.
Willow twisted the ring on her hand as she said, "I want to dream of my best friend, Buffy."
"Do you have a picture of her?" Tara asked, her mind opening.
Willow's mouth was tight, and she didn't say anything as she drew a picture from her handbag, opening the mother of pearl clasp almost roughly.
Tara took the picture in her hands. The woman was beautiful, had been beautiful far longer than Willow had, and held her beauty in a confidence that Willow coveted. Looking over the rim of the picture, she saw Willow's face tighten even more, her eyes narrowing, her breath short and shallow.
Tara suddenly understood, probably more perfectly than Willow could ever imagine. A sudden ache for Willow's pain grabbed her heart in a tight fist; for a moment, Tara could barely breathe.
(oh the nightmare)
"How did she die?" Tara asked softly, careful not to pour out so much concern that Willow would cry because of it. It was a narrow precipice that kept the green-eyed woman from tears, and Tara did not want to push too hard.
Willow licked her lips and said a single word. "Violently."
Willow had no power to change Buffy's fate. Blood was her design.
Tara could see it. She could see Buffy and Willow one sultry night, two months into Buffy's marriage with Riley, nibbling marzipan and drinking sweet jenniver wine. Walking arm in arm down a street thinly lit with gas lamps. Nearby a jazz band would be performing for tossed coins; the music was a feast, and Willow and Buffy gorged themselves on it, leaving eight shiny rupahs in the frayed fedora hat. They walked and giggled and sighed, and the moon was pregnant in the night sky
(mirroring Buffy's darkling womb)
and the crickets would be performing. Buffy's face would be lit from within, her vivacity too much for this paltry earth. She had cheated death too many times before.
So God called her home.
And when Willow woke in the hospital, Buffy's hair would have already been washed of its blood, a tag on her toe. Despite her too-oft excursions to the Sunnydale cemetery, burying friends and family alike, Willow was not inoculated against grief, a testament to her humanity.
Buffy had given her that ring when they were girls, and it was the locus of Willow's transformation.
How soon after Buffy's death had Willow come to the poppy den?
(Too soon; she should not be here already.)
"You do not need to apologize to her," Tara said, leaning forward slightly in her chair, watching Willow's eyes widen, and then tighten. "No matter what you believe, it was not your fault. You don't need to wear your guilt like a shroud."
Willow began fighting tears, and she asked almost angrily, "How do you know all this?"
"You could say I'm a scholar of the human condition," Tara replied. At the hurt confusion in Willow's face, she explained, "I can read people, as easily as I read books." She gave a small wave at her bookcase, her bracelets jingling. Tara wondered whether to show off a bit more, tell the girl that she knew she didn't trust her hairdresser, that she had a husky puppy, and she never invited her parents for supper; but Tara decided, wisely, not to.
Tara looked down at the picture again, releasing Willow from her gaze, giving Willow some space and time to recover. This Buffy
(and what did that name reveal about Buffy's parents?)
was responsible for Willow's metamorphosis in school. For some reason, lushly beautiful Buffy had taken a computer nerd under her wing. Willow had been ashamed of her freckles back then, and dressed in Sears castoffs given her by her mother, and dreamed of impossible worlds. The day Buffy gave her that cracker jack ring was the best day of her life. What did Buffy say to Willow the day Willow made her first million?
(I kinda love you, you know?
And can you loan me a tenski?)
Lipstick on a pig. Tara felt an incredible rush of desire for Willow, a tingling that began in her toes and swept her entire body, leaving her hair on end. She licked her lips, slowly. What did Willow taste like?
(jenniver and marzipan and jasmine)
Willow was watching her again, but her eyes were still tight. She was closed up, protecting herself against Tara's microscopic gaze, Tara's uncanny knowledge. For a moment, Tara mourned. She would make the dream so perfect that Willow would come begging for more. It would take only a little extra effort, a little push.
And damn her, Tara would now push.