Some ten minutes later, Tara emerged from the back entrance of the poppy den, the seven packets of fresh made dreams in the pouch of her belt. She was clothed in the garb of the Hunter; tight black pants, a black shirt that hugged all the right curves, her shoes with doe-skin soles. She had pulled her hair back into a clip, and one strand kept fluttering around her face. She stood for a moment at the back entrance, the rank smell of the neighborhood almost as visible as fog. An enterprising rat was rummaging through a small pile of refuse that had collected near the storm drain. Tara consulted her watch; she had less than an hour to make her deliveries.
Wrapped in the magic of the Hunter clothing, Tara walked down the alleyway making no sound whatsoever, even when her heels crunched over rocks and assorted litter. Her mind had once again pulled a curtain over the events of the day; she walked having no destination in her mind, heeding the subtle call that no one but she could hear.
She paused near the locked shed, asking that strange floating sensation in her mind whether she needed to drive anywhere tonight. There was a small yet emphatic yes; she touched the lock with her fingers and it sprang open without a key. Mediocre glow from the street lamp revealed her motorcycle, and she wheeled it out of the shed.
Mounting her bike, she touched the tiny vid screen on the dashboard. The vehicle scanned her fingerprint and with a single click it came to silent life. Running on electric power, it made no noise at all. Tara pushed off with that rebellious tendril of hair streaming behind her; she never wore a helmet. Moments later Tara was driving down the streets of Sunnydale, following the unbidden directions produced by the calmness of her mind. Though there was still a number of people on the streets, walking, laughing, enjoying the slight break of summer California heat, no one noticed her. No one could. Wearing enchanted Hunter clothing, she was as good as invisible.
Tara knew every hydrant, every tree, every alley of Sunnydale. She had been working at this poppy den for about eighty years, and spent at least an hour each and every night in her dream deliveries.
(the quota is not full)
She found herself outside a house on Revello Drive. There were two large fir trees dotted on the front lawn, and the house was white with brick trimming. The porch wasn't closed in; intoxicated moths batted in futile desperation at the porch light.
Tara would never search the interlink to find out who lived in the houses she visited. These clients had faces to her, but no names.
She parked her bike and walked up the narrow sidewalk. There was a chubby ceramic gnome peeking from behind one of the trees; Tara wondered who had put it there. She narrowed her eyes at it; it almost seemed to be staring at her.
There was no hesitation as she approached the door; she touched the lock with her finger and she could hear the dead bolt slide open, another click as the lock disengaged. The door swung open soundlessly and Tara stepped inside.
The house was immaculate but there was a disturbing sensation in the air, as if the person who lived here had no hope for a happy ending. Once again, Tara's senses had been dead accurate. She would give this person a dream, and in the morning the house would feel lighter for it.
(after I scream for it)
As long as the occupant accepted the dream. Sometimes they didn't.
Tara had never been in this particular house before, but she still knew exactly where to go. The stairs leading up were directly in front of her, and she began to climb them. Her legendary instincts warned her of the squeaking fifth step, so she bypassed it in a larger stride.
Once upstairs she went straight to the master bedroom. In the faint light Tara could see paintings on the walls, a low shelf with various sculptures and other pieces of art. She turned to the bed and saw a mature woman lying there, sleeping on her side with a frown on her face.
Her hair was a tawny golden, and with a rippling shock of ice in her system, Tara knew exactly who this woman was.
Tara rummaged in her pouch for one of the labeled packets, knowing instantly what dream she had created earlier would be best for this woman, then ripped the paper sleeve open. Pouring the dream into her hands, Tara moved to the side of the bed. Breathing on the contents one more time, they began to glow with a golden light. Tara whispered, “May my dream bring you peace,” and then deliberately sprinkled the dust over the woman's head. She would know instantly if the woman accepted Tara's dream or not.
A tense moment, the golden dust resting on the woman's skin and hair, and then the dust was absorbed.
Tara smiled. This was practically the only part of her life that she enjoyed. These dreams would never have the intense focus she provided for her paying clients, the manufactured scenes playing out like a movie reel. Instead, these dreams were generic visions of loveliness, of hugs and puppies and sunshiny days, of cloud shapes and fresh baked cookies and the sense of family. If Tara had a choice, these were the only dreams she would create.
Alas that Tara had no choice.
(because he has my collar)
Tara lingered for a moment in the room, watching the woman sleep, watching as her facial expression changed from distraught loneliness to shy happiness.
(now take your price, Tara)
Sighing, Tara bent over and touched the woman's forehead very lightly with her lips, and she could almost feel the brown advance a little farther down the strands of her hair. The woman noticed neither the apothecary nor the kiss; she just snuggled deeper in her sheets, her eyelids fluttering.
Tara retreated the same way she had come in; she closed the door behind her and with another touch of her fingers re-engaged the lock. Straddling her motorcycle, Tara managed to enter two more houses and deliver two more dreams (one rejected) before the alarm on her watch announced that it was midnight.
Tara threw her leftover dreams in the trash. They lost all power after midnight.
Back then to the poppy den, locking her bike back into the shed, climbing the stairs to her loft. Then she changed into light sleeping clothes, brushed her hair and finally crawled into her tiny bed. A small pocket of nausea lay like lead in her stomach as she thought of the nightmare that would soon come. What would it be?
She hated sleep. The first month after her enslavement, Tara had tried not to sleep at all, thinking to bypass the nightmares by the simple expedient of staying awake. That didn't last very long.
(even the all-powerful need to sleep)
Mounted on the wall above her headboard was a scream catcher. It was circular and twelve inches in diameter. The rim of it was made of twisted doe-skin; the threads criss-crossing like mesh inside were all white with no patterns or markings.
Every apothecary in each of the twenty poppy dens across the world had a similar device on the wall over their heads.
(he is the most clever and maniacal human I've ever known
how long can we keep him from Dawn?)
Tara was exhausted by her day's efforts. Though she reflected on the kiss she shared with Willow, it did not take her a long time to collapse into sleep.
The fair was a melting pot of sights and sounds, its narrow lanes crowded with a mob of humanity. Lights were a din, a mixture of neon and soft paper lanterns and cables of fairy lights draped over booths. Tara was standing in the middle of a causeway and even though the crowds were thick, no one touched her. She found that she was wearing the same clothes she had worn this afternoon in the den.
There could be no mistaking the red hair of Willow, the golden hair of Buffy, even assaulted as Tara was by the sight of the rest of the fair.
Willow was staring right at her.
do the gods speak?)
Soon enough Willow's attention was ripped away. Tara followed the girls at a distance, her stomach curdling with worry, wondering when the nightmare would begin. What would happen to Willow here? Would someone eviscerate her with a serrated blade? Would some booth choose the exact moment to topple over on her teenage body? Would a ride malfunction and cut off her head?
Tara could not hear the words they were saying, but her heart ached in happiness to see Willow so overjoyed. This Willow was so unlike the one who had come to her den; this Willow was young and eager, the starry lights of the universe bathing her skin, setting her aglow.
(this is the Willow that was)
This was indeed the dream she had created for Willow, but why was Tara dreaming it also?
(I kissed her on the mouth)
Never before had Tara been able to see inside of one of her client's dreams. Her nightmares were composed of other more dangerous things, the collected memories of the evils of the world. She had dreamed of pograms, of death camps. She had dreamed of childhood abuse and neglect. She had dreamed of war, of shells bursting through innocent bodies, spraying the ground with blood and gore. Night after night Tara dreamed of the wickedness of mankind, of man's inhumanity to man, and no wonder she felt the human race had little way to redeem itself.
Was Willow so very different from the rest of them? Did silent ambitions cloud her wealth, leading her to blackmail, to murder? Small wonder Buffy's death had changed her so, made her hard, made her brittle. Willow had been such an easy nut to crack; one or two sentences about Willow's past, and Willow had lost.
(everything to lose and nothing to win)
Oh, my. The cracker jack ring.
Willow looked elated, as if Buffy had given her the keys to the world instead of a cheap plastic ring. Looking at Willow through the curtains of people, Tara again felt that hard punch to her chest.
(I would do anything to have her be so happy again
but that's not in my power to give)
Something was changing. Tara felt it, and knew that the screams were coming now. There was a solid two feet of cork sandwiched between the floors of the poppy den; Tara would never disturb Eva's or Anya's sleep, no matter how she shrieked in the night.
The scene flickered, and Tara drew closer and closer. Jazz, and crickets, and Buffy's belly swelling with her little gift.
And the moon itself was distant and sere, cackling as it remembered every evil on earth throughout all time. It was a magnifying glass, a mirror, a silent witness to atrocity and pain. When wickedness came, the moon feasted on it, until it was as bloated and venomous as a spider.
Tara stood behind Willow as Buffy's forehead cracked open with blood, and then the body slumped to the ground like a discarded rag.
With one smooth and swift movement, the grace of a skilled hunter, Willow simultaneously turned and thrust with her rapier, sliding through Tara, and Tara could feel the coolness of it, the wicked edge of the blade as it sheared through her muscles, lungs, and bones, erupting, erupting on the other side.
The pain was shocking in its reality, and blood bubbled through her lips.
(I will never wake again. Willow has killed me.)
Her knees jelly, Tara fell to the ground, the hard crack shattering her already overpowered nerves. To her great astonishment and wonder, Willow crouched with her, her face a symphony of surprise and regret. Vast anguish blazed from Willow's green eyes, and barely heard through the rushing of Tara's blood and screams, Tara could hear Willow say her name.
Dying, Tara lifted a bloodstreaked hand and touched Willow's face. She left a bloody fingerprint like a tattoo on Willow's cheek. To her even greater surprise, Tara discovered that she had a message for the woman she loved, but she couldn't quite say it.
(did you really think you could run from responsibility forever, Willow?
can you afford to dream your life away?
and there's no Dawn)
Tara screamed herself awake, her body jerking spasmodically in her bed. Sweat springing on her forehead, Tara willed her heart to ease its fury, her breathing ragged at first but slowly softening. When she had regained her wits, Tara looked to the screamcatcher.
It was nearly brimmed with ink, the physical product of her screams. Her heart heavy, her movements automatic after nearly 500 years of waking the same way, Tara pulled a bowl from her bedside cabinet. Her fingers trembling a little in memory, almost astonished that there was no sword protruding from her chest, Tara took down the screamcatcher and emptied the ink into the bowl. It was nearly full.
(with it my Master will pen the last will and testament of this world)
Later Tara emptied it into one of the ten jugs in the locked cabinet at the back of her workroom. Most of the jugs were full of ink, each filled with the physical progeny of her dreams. Yet a jug and a half were completely empty. The screams she bottled from actual clients produced a much larger supply of ink than her generic dreams; thus the necessity of having clients at all.
She could care less about the money. It couldn't buy anything important.
Tara frowned. She had a quota to fill and not much time.