The stack of money stayed for a long time exactly where Willow had placed it.
After clearing away the tea tray, Tara went back into her den. With grey silk whisking at her ankles, the beloved scent of her books merely a hint and a wish in the air, Tara parted the beaded curtain that led from the stairwell into her home, then closed the steel door. She took only one client every day.
Her bare feet stepped lightly on the Persian rug of her den as she made her way back to the little chintz-covered tea table. The stack of bills was an abnormality, almost menacing in its silence. By the very way it took up space it seemed to remind Tara of the difficult choice she had made.
(Don't come back, Willow.)
Tara picked up the heavy volume that Willow had been reading. There was no way to tell what part Willow had been reading; Tara found that she wished she knew. She wished she could open the book to the page that Willow beheld last, as if the book itself was aware of its reader and could be a mirror into Willow's indomitable soul. Could the words feel the undivided attention of the red-haired enigma, words desperate to share secrets and truths of a universe that could have been real?
Maybe there was a Narnia, and a lion named Aslan, a place where animals spoke and trees came to life, where the pennants of Cair Paravel snapped in a lively breeze as the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve began a true and just rulership.
In the loft above her own, Eva would know. If Tara asked, Eva could show her the other worlds that lay like a filter upon this one. But Tara wouldn't ask.
Her eyes stinging with remorse, Tara sat down in Willow's chair. As the cushions deflated under her, there was a soft sigh of the perfume Willow had been wearing; the scent seemed to circle Tara in chains. Tara closed her burning eyes and rested for a moment, bringing to mind every moment of her kiss.
Her fingers curling reflexively on the arms of the chair, Tara softly bit her lower lip in remembrance. Willow had caressed her lips with her tongue, had teased them open. She had pressed so soft, and then so hard, her breasts lightly touching Tara's own, their clothing sliding over each other in earnest reflection of the action of their lips. As Willow kissed her, tentative at first, then stronger
Tara had felt like a woman again, beautiful, enchanting, essential. It was a feeling she hadn't experienced in over five hundred years. The only reason she had been gifted with such beauty, with such a kiss from a stranger, was because Willow must have seen it, she must have seen the stale and dried anguish in Tara's eyes, the monotony of hundreds of years and thousands of forehead kisses and nearly 183,000 nights alone in her tiny bed.
And Tara remembered the mirrored pain in Willow's eyes, those eyes that had seen too much. Stormy eyes, wracked with remembrances of shattered swords and gouged eyes and scars on cheeks.
Willow had been as desperate for the kiss as Tara. Why was it that no one loved her?
(If only I could love her.)
So Tara wept.
At this point Tara didn't really understand why it had to be Willow who saw through her, and not one of the other thousands of her female clients. She didn't comprehend the soul deep connection she felt with the woman, the connection she noticed the moment Willow first walked timidly into the poppy den downstairs. The blonde and bubbly capitalistic purveyor of the den had wasted no time in teaching Willow the way of the dragonsbreath, how to light the bowl just so, how to hold the precious smoke for a moment in the mouth, until it penetrated her very blood.
And when the despair became evident, Anya did as she always would; she mentioned Tara's name, and the chance for a manufactured dream, soporific perfection for the dark watches of the night. Who would not take the opportunity to relive again some moments of bliss, or to find fake vengeance for slights and wrongs?
Her green eyes blighted, Willow should have been just one of thousands, nothing remarkable about her at all.
Tara almost forced the thought away. God did not smile on her, He had no blessings for her like arrows in his quiver, no reason to send an angel in Willow-clothing. How could He, while Tara served an agent of the Adversary?
(who has my collar and by whom I am damned)
Here, in the chair with Willow-scent cloaking her like a blanket, Tara allowed herself to think it. Just once, and only once, or it would drive her mad.
(Unless Willow is the one to free me.)
True to her iron willpower, Tara then forced all thoughts of Willow from her head. She rose from the chair, put the fifteen thousand dollars into her safe in the front room and then changed into sweats and a tank top. With a tap on the vid, she activated the alarm that lay across the stairwell, which would warn her when someone was coming either direction upon the stairs. Pulling her mostly blond hair into a ponytail, Tara opened the door to her workroom and flicked on the cheery electric light.
The room was similar to her library in function; the walls were ceiling to floor shelves, row upon row and along the walls, and there were no windows. Yet instead of books, these shelves held thousands upon thousands of little jars. Inside the jars were powders and petals, oils and unguents and essences, liquids and silicates and scrapings and more. Unlike her library, all these jars were carefully labeled and catalogued in Tara's tiny and precise lettering.
There was a locked metal cabinet on the back wall that Tara ignored. It was not as full as it should be with the gallon jugs of inky oil she produced at night. She had a quota to meet for her Master, and she never knew when he would be coming to claim it.
(I have work to do)
Tara knew she could not afford to begin her work until all thoughts of Willow were stashed away in her brain as airtight as these little jars. There was a silken cushion on the floor near her worktable; she sank on it in the lotus position.
She had hundreds of years of practice, her mind a well-oiled machine. Soon enough she was focused on her breath, her chi, a white blanket of supernatural protection and bliss covering her soul. Only then did Tara rise and begin to walk the narrow aisles of her dream superstore, touching a jar here and there, finally choosing one or another. When her arms were cluttered with half a dozen jars she made her way to the worktable.
Still operating in that dreamlike and near-trance state, Tara opened the jars and began measuring out precise amounts into a stone mortar; a little this, a little that, a few grains of sand, a pinch of red powder, four drops of some oil, a crushed leaf of nettle, making notations of each in a ledger she kept at hand. When she felt she was finished with adding ingredients, she brought out her pestle and began to grind the ingredients together, always breathing slowly and deeply, her mind floating and still.
(I am the apothecary
and I am damned)
Then she breathed upon it, and the dream was ready for delivery.
She poured the contents of the mortar into a small paper envelope and sealed it. She returned all her materials to their proper positions on the shelves and gathered the ingredients for another dream.
Hours later and lost in her work, her mind so occupied at shutting the memory of Willow away, she nearly shrieked as a hand touched her shoulder. Tara whirled, her hand slopping some of the essence of lavender she had been about to add to her concoction, her heart drumming in surprise.
Eva was already a step away, looking at Tara with a mixture of mirth and confusion. Tara looked from the catalyst to the open door of her workroom, then back to the catalyst and the plate of food in Eva's hand.
"Geez, Tara, I haven't been able to sneak up on you for at least sixty years," Eva said, looking concerned. Tara saw Eva's gaze snap to the three inches of changed hair, then back to Tara's flushed face. "I don't understand... it doesn't look as if you had a particularly bad day."
Tara chose to let that comment rest, knowing that the only answer would be a long and hard one, and one she wasn't about to share with the woman who would eventually take Willow away from her, as she had so many of Tara's clients.
(What Willow? She's not coming back, remember?)
"Sorry, Eva, I guess I was just concentrating on my work." Tara set down the jar and picked up a paper towel to wipe her hands.
"I'd have to agree," Eva replied, looking meaningfully at the small collection of sealed packets clustered at the top of the worktable. "You missed supper."
Only as Eva said those words did Tara realize that she was ravenous, and the smell of the coconut curry in Eva's hands was intoxicating. "What time is it?" Tara asked as she got up, her lower back screeching in protest. She half shuffled to the basin to wash her hands, aware of Eva's eyes on her the entire time.
Eva was as good as Tara at reading people, maybe even better. Tara had learned a long time ago not to lie to her.
Well, not to lie very much.
"It's past ten in the evening. When you didn't come up for supper I wondered if some client had either killed you, or seduced you."
Tara blushed as she toweled her hands dry, tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears. Eva enjoyed being seduced, by man and woman alike. Tara, on the other hand
(I will wait for the right one
even if I wait forever)
"That's not very likely, Eva," she said, taking the plate from Eva's hands and shooing them both from her workroom. Eva made a rather interesting harrumph of sound, which Tara decided to ignore.
They sat down at the small kitchen table; there was a vase of calendula and narcissus upon it. "Did you have a good day?" Tara asked as she began to eat.
In the winsome glow of naphtha, Eva looked every part of the seductress she was. Eva was the second most powerful of all of Tara's race; Tara herself ranked about seventh in the pantheon she belonged to. With glossy black hair and enchanting violet eyes, Eva was the most skilled hunter Tara had ever known. No wonder it was her duty
to act as catalyst for the unfortunate fools that Tara and the other apothecaries sent her way.
(the fools, the damned)
Not everyone who succumbed to Anya's poppy den were desperate enough for Tara's dreams. Even fewer of Tara's clients made that extra trek up the stairs to Eva's parlour. As a result, Eva was not always at the Sunnydale poppy den. She traveled between the near-twenty poppy dens that were skittled all over the globe, acting as the catalyst for each one.
The world was corrupt, and mankind was desperate and weak. Eva was kept busy, hopping over the planet. She had only been home for the past two days. As much as Tara detested what the catalyst did
(as I detest and loathe what I do)
Tara was glad for her company, and her cooking. Anya, the matron of the poppy den downstairs, took her work obscenely seriously
(I swear that money is the only thing she is in love with)
and kept the poppy den open until past midnight each night, resulting in not very much contact with the other women who worked this poppy den. Sometimes Anya would join them for supper, but more often she would not. After five hundred years of eating, most food on Earth tasted like ash in Tara's mouth; she ate only to keep her body running. Eva was an immensely talented chef
(how many centuries of practice?)
for Tara actually enjoyed today's coconut and curry; it had a tiny tinge of green chili that warmed her tongue like an ember.
"It was quiet day," Eva replied to Tara's question. "Spent some of it watching a very hot chick smoke cigarets at the curb. She looked vaguely familiar, but I can't place her. The gentleman with her would have been completely uninteresting had he not had this very conspicuous scar on his face."
"Mmm," Tara murmured, her mouth full. She looked up at the horloge, startled to find it was so late.
Eva noticed, and said, "Don't you have an alarm in the stairwell? I thought no one could sneak up on you."
"I was busy," Tara replied between bites, her voice a little icy.
"Fine, fine," Eva said, lifting her palms in a gesture of peace. "Keep whatever secrets you must. You better hurry up if you're going to get anything done before midnight."
Tara didn't need to be told. She finished wolfing down her supper, and then stood, Eva rising with her. "Thanks for the meal, Eva. I better be on my way."
Eva took the plate from her and said, "Be careful tonight, Tara."
"I'm always careful."
(Uh huh. What do you call what happened this afternoon?