It was a slow and steady stride that led Willow back through the poppy den, around the semi-comatose patrons she had noticed before. Their eyes, bleary with smoke and half-veiled pain, seemed to follow her as she wove between them. If they dared, they would have asked what happened upstairs. Willow knew she would have nothing to say to them. There were no words that could quantify the experience she just had, no way to explain the welter of her feelings to any of them, nor did she wish to.
Willow realized she was still stinging with Tara's rejection.
(I don't give a damn about the money)
The way Tara had looked when she first emerged from behind the screen, her eyes so vulnerable and soft, her whole body meek and thin; Willow felt her heart fly into her throat. Tara's need was as obvious as the change in six inches of her hair colour.
(and now only three inches...why?)
And then the kiss.
At first Willow had convinced herself to kiss Tara because it was the only way to get her dream, and she would have her dream no matter the cost. But then...
(I've never been kissed like that--)
Willow remembered her own loneliness, and the stricken eyes of the apothecary as she came through that curtain. An indescribable urge to comfort the strange woman came over her. So she kissed Tara, and pretended for only a millisecond that she was kissing Xander.
Because it became apparent, very fast, that kissing a woman was indescribable in comparison. That kissing this Tara...
(was one of the best experiences of my life)
Willow thought of all this, Tara's face before and after the calamitous kiss as Willow walked through the dimly lit den, heading for the exit. Why, why had Tara closed herself off so precipitously? Didn't she want Willow to come back?
(nobody wants me)
The smoke of the poppy den stung her nose and her eyes; she imagined it clinging to her clothing. She regretted that she had to exit the same way she came in. The delicate scents of Tara's den would be lost before she ever emerged on the street. The alluring jasmine, the stolid leather, and then the half-miraculous scent of the apothecary herself that could not be described in mere words.
(damn, she was delicious)
Willow used to think she was a master of words, that they came and went at her bidding. This was the first time in a long time that they failed her.
(does she kiss everyone like that?)
Willow would not look into the corners of the dark space, where the mahogany bled into the ceiling with ripples of ornate workmanship. Hopes, wishes, and dreams were all captive to this space, released in the smoke of burnt poppy and sent to the ceiling where they hovered until they died. Discreetly hidden in the corners of this room were half a dozen vid cameras. Willow had studied stolen blueprints before the first time she walked through the doors; she wondered if Tara was watching her even now.
(why did she shut herself away?)
Willow would not look at the cameras.
(My god, I kissed a woman)
Willow paused at the exit, wrapped all her thoughts in a tight package and locked them in her mind. She would not reflect on this experience until she was alone again.
(and I'm not sure if I'll ever be the same.)
Finally Willow burst through the door into the brash and exuberant sunlight of a California summer afternoon. The light hammered on her eyes, sent spikes of visual overload into her brain. She rapidly fished in her purse for her sunglasses, but before she could shimmy them on her nose she felt the solid frame of her steward next to her.
"Your car is this way, Miss Rosenberg," he said quietly.
Willow nodded, sliding the glasses into place. The extravagant and overeager sunlight thus tamed, Willow could see her sedan at the curb. Her new driver was lounging against the hood smoking a cigaret; at her steward's sharp cough the woman straightened and threw the cigaret to the ground, crushing it under her booted heel. Before she could stop herself, Willow found herself whispering, "Black cat, black cat, bring me luck. If you don't I'll tear you up."
"I beg your pardon, Miss Rosenberg?" her steward asked, just beyond her elbow.
"Nothing, Giles," Willow replied.
Street urchins were also smoking cigarets; Willow wondered if her new driver had given them away, or made them play a game for them. The children were unwashed and reeking, hooting as they played leapfrog or kick the can. The questionable neighborhood itself seemed to embrace them like a matron; Willow was the one out of place here. She wanted to give her driver a sharp glance, but knew that the woman could not see her eyes through the tinted sunglasses.
Thank goodness they had brought the sedan, and not the Rolls, though her new driver looked more than capable of keeping the looky-loos away. Willow knew that Faith Lehane kept daggers down her boots, knew that she had hired Miss Lehane to be more than a mere driver for her.
(Giles thinks I need a bodyguard.)
Giles held the door open for her and she slid into the back seat. The windows were tinted, and kept out more than overfriendly rays of sunshine. A moment later both her steward and her driver also got into the car, waiting for her instructions.
Willow found herself looking at the mean little building that housed the poppy den. With the sunglasses off of her face again she took in the shabby exterior. All the windows were blinded by heavy drapes; she remembered that precious little sunlight eked into the poppy den. The front part of Tara's parlour had no windows; it had concerned Giles when Willow first said she was going to go up.
(But I didn't go up, not that time, nor the time after.)
Her stodgy steward had probably assumed that Willow would not gather the courage for that trek up the stairs. When he discovered that her intent was real, he had procured those blueprints and they both scoured them. Willow knew exactly how Tara's kitchen was laid out, the infinitessimally small sleeping chamber, the front room with large windows.
The unnamed and large workroom along the back. There were no windows in that room.
Willow could smell cigaret smoke in her car and she was suddenly angry. Sitting in the back of her sedan, Willow sniffed her blouse and could smell nothing but poppy and tobacco and her heart sank. Looking out the window again, Willow told herself not to touch her lips, not in front of the hired help.
It seemed that the memory of the kiss might be the only part of the experience she would be able to keep. The kiss, and the apothecary's haunted eyes. What had the world done to her?
(Don't think about it now, not here.)
Willow wrestled the thought down, and the silence grew thick in the car, but both of her staff merely waited. Giles was more used to her moods than her new driver. Willow wondered if Giles ever worried that she was going to terminate his employment.
A year ago, Willow herself would never have entered such a place, unless she was pumping someone for information. Back when Buffy was alive, and Xander was home, and life was as close to normal as it would ever get for her.
Since then, Giles' saddened visage as she began frequenting the den was almost enough to make her stop.
But then she never would have known of the existence of the apothecary, and the woman's strange gifts. Willow remembered the resolve she had in mounting those stairs earlier, and only Buffy was on her mind, and the pain of her empty and lonesome life. She ached for that warm friendship so much, the easy camaraderie, the laughing, the joking.
Every day without Buffy a new obstacle to face, a grinning adversary with a sword, and Willow was so very tired of being alone. It seemed that pain was all she had a right to now.
The pain of her failure.
(now I obsess over a kiss)
Willow would consider firing Giles from time to time, just so she would never have to face the disappointment in his eyes; he would never cross her will, but he had been against the poppy den from the start.
(the bonds of blood are the tightest)
Willow almost asked Faith to drive around the building, skirting the urchins, dragging tires through piles of stinking refuse, just so Willow could look up at the second story to see the windows of Tara's apartment.
However, self restraint was very Willow these days, as it had never been before.
"Take me home, please," Willow said instead.
Faith nodded, her long dark hair cunningly drawn into her driver's cap, her lips fiery with lipstick. They had been in this neighborhood before; Willow was too valuable to come here without her staff. Her driver had to roll down the window, shake her fist, and yell at the urchins to get out of her way. Giles scowled at the young woman, then looked back at Willow. When Willow nodded, feeling almost sick with loneliness, a dark panel raised between the front and back seats, effectively cutting off Faith's cursing and the sickly sweet smell of the neighborhood.
Even then Willow would not rest. By long-standing tradition, Giles would not look through the security camera that showed the back seat. Yet Willow had for so long trained herself to show as little emotion as possible that she would not relax until she was in her home, and training was complete, and she could read a book and play with her puppy.
And sleep, and dream.
(that kiss, Willow.)
It took some extra effort, but Willow closed that away again. If she thought of the kiss, she would have to think about the apothecary, and she would have to remember that last look on Tara's face.
Willow looked out of the window, watched as the neighborhoods slowly got more respectable. Then they were out of Sunnydale completely, following the winding road that led through Miller's Woods.
Willow stared at the woods flashing by, not knowing that they were mere reflections of the beauty of her own eyes, just as wild and deep and captivating.
Not knowing that, at that moment, Tara wept for her.
She did not think of Tara at all. She didn't allow it.
Soon they were stopped at the guard house at the entrance to her estate. Dim through the panel separating the front from the back she could see Faith and Giles submitting willingly to the automated retinal scanner. The gates opened easily and without sound, and Miss Lehane drove up to the main entrance.
Practically before the car even halted, Giles had jumped out to open her door. As Willow got out of the car, she could feel Faith's gaze on the back of her head. Her mouth tight, Willow swivelled her head and gazed at the girl. Faith's cheeks coloured slightly, but still she stared, too proud to stop now when caught.
Giles fussed at Willow's elbow. Willow released Faith's gaze to look at her steward instead. The afternoon sunlight wasn't particularly kind on his face, lighting the rather deep scar he sported on one cheek. As always it looked out of place on his kind and studious face, a face more accustomed to reading and study than warfare.
That scar was one reason he would never leave Willow's service, and they both knew it.
(the bonds of blood are the tightest)
Besides, she secretly found great comfort in his Briton ways, the accent that curled over certain words, his immaculate shoes and his fondness for fencing. Until today, she thought that no one could make a better cup of tea.
(don't think of that, not yet)
And she knew that everyone underestimated her steward, the skills he brought to her household. Just because his face looked more at home in a library than a battlefield didn't erase the fact that he was one of the most skilled warriors she had ever known. He could have trained her himself, but he insisted on hiring an Armsmaster (who is also a Briton but certainly not a steward). Giles' tweed clothing was as much a disguise as her designer clothing was.
(why had Tara never organized her books?)
He stayed a step behind her as she climbed the stairs to her front door. She hated to think it, but she couldn't in all conscience call it a house. It was a mansion. Willow simply called it home. Giles, Faith, and the other service staff had their own home, connected to hers by a short walkway and spun around the back, unseen from the front of the estate.
The sun was a warm glow on her back as it raced to the horizon for the end of day. The warmth penetrated her cream coloured blouse, but it still seemed almost fake compared to the other warmth she had felt this day.
She cleared her throat, and Giles immediately spoke. "Your Armsmaster will arrive in forty minutes, Miss Rosenberg."
Willow stopped long enough on the step to look at him, then looked again at Miss Lehane. Giles must have given her new driver a lecture as they returned home; she did not bring out a smoke, nor did she lounge on the hood. Instead she stood by the front of the car, stiff and cold in the anvil heat of summer, her lips that brilliant shade of red and defiance written all over her face.
Willow smiled a grim little smile. "See to it that Faith joins us this evening."