Willow woke to the feeling of a sword hilt in her hand, sour bile in her mouth and sorrow and shame so deep she felt she could never recover from it. Her entire body felt as if it had spent the night squeezed in some giant hand; she ached in every muscle, and sparks seemed to float along her bones.
And within every particle of her body, tucked into every crevice of her soul, ringing in her ears and sending her lips aglow was the feeling of absolute devotion, love fathoms deep, a grey silken thread connecting her heart to the heart of the apothecary. The sensation was so alien, so forced, that Willow tried for some moments to shut it away.
It was love from outside, not from within, a chemical love created by a chemist, not the proven and tested affection and loyalty that came stronger with time.
Anger began to grow within her. Did the apothecary know what she did in this? Was she nothing but some sadistic demon wrapped in beauty, determined to spoil the few good memories that Willow kept harboured in her soul? Willow thought back to that most beloved of memories, that night with Buffy at the fair, and to her sorrow she found it had indeed been eclipsed by the apothecary's dream.
She could no longer wrap that cherished memory about herself when loneliness hollowed her. It was surgically attached now to the nightmare of Buffy's death; in the space of this past night they had melted and become one. Add that to the feelings of desire and affection she had felt for Tara, imposed on her, forced inside her, almost like rape it was, and Willow burned even more.
It seemed that the universe itself conspired to take everything that mattered away from her. Willow would gladly trade in all her possessions, her skills in battle, if she could but have the companionship of friends and family. Money was hollow and useless. As love for Tara continued to pulse within her, she felt nauseous and alone, almost desperate enough to take that fake love and harbour it like a parasite in her soul.
But it could never compare to the real thing.
So Willow forced it away, scraped that sham-love under a rug in her mind, locked it in a box of anger. The apothecary had no right to torture her so. If the devil she was, then she should be pleased with her work.
Willow looked at the cracker jack ring that was still on her baby finger, but it was not Buffy she thought of. She looked at it, and all she could see was her hand on the sword hilt and the mark in the crook of Tara's elbow.
(By god I will destroy her for what she's done)
Willow took the ring off and locked it in a drawer, unable to bear the sight of it.
Later, Giles could not convince her to abstain from her morning jog, his arguments about her wound falling upon deaf ears. He sent Faith to jog with her, and as the women ran through the multitudes of trails on Willow's estate, Jupiter like a comet between them, her blood pounded with every heartbeat through the cut on her arm, and she welcomed the pain, and drew it like a shield between herself and her thoughts.
For a wonder Faith was silent enough, not questioning why Willow could not run on the trails of her own estate without supervision. After their breathless return to the mansion, Willow subjected herself to Giles's lectures, as he used warm water to break the clotted blood-seal of the bandage, wrapping it anew.
By ten in the morning, Willow had showered, eaten, dressed in casual clothing, and sequestered herself in the server room. Ten vid monitors curved around the central desk, and the room hummed in electricity. Even as Willow booted up the programs she could still feel vestiges of that love for Tara, sparking here and there as if to generate a flame.
She did not know that she was the topic of conversation in the kitchen, where Jenny and Giles worried for her.
"I don't even recognize her anymore," Giles was saying. His voice was more stricken than Jenny had ever heard; she wrapped her hands around his to comfort him. "I should have found some way to keep her from going to that bloody den," he continued.
"You know she has her own will," Jenny started, with a wistful tiny smile at the pun, "from her youth she has discovered that she can achieve whatever she wants as long as she works hard at it. How else could she have come to circumstances such as this?" She waved her hand along the room.
"I don't know whether to wish someone would give her a contract, just so she could get out of this hellish town, or to wish for enough quiet time so she can rest and heal."
The Gyptian took a knowing breath. "Rupert, there is no way we can be a substitute for the holes in Willow's heart. Maybe it's because I'm a woman, and women somehow know what the real ailments are. It is not merely loneliness that assaults Willow. What she needs, now more than ever before, is to be loved."
Giles opened his mouth to say something, but Jenny placed her finger on his lips. "I know, Rupert. We all love her. We would all do anything for her. But this thing she needs is something that we cannot provide."
"How will she ever find a companion when she keeps herself locked away?" Giles mused. "It may be that her heart is locked tight, but she doesn't even look for a key."
"Keys are found in the oddest of places," Jenny whispered, then she kissed Giles softly on the mouth. When she pulled away, her fingers still wrapped over his scarred hands, she said, "You better ask Xander to call."
Giles looked at the horloge on the wall, his face soft and gentle, the scar on his cheek no longer an aberration while his whole soul was loved. "It is late over there in Tehran," he said, looking back at Jenny. "Nevertheless, you are right. I'll see what can be arranged."
Meanwhile, Willow was hard at work. Her fingers practically flew over the keyboard, the vid screens populating with data. She pulled up a facial recognition application, then bit her lip slightly as she began building a composite avatar of the apothecary.
Her hair was like this, Willow thought, and her cheekbones here. Her eyes, not that blue, nor that one, but yes, this one. Was it this nose or the other? As Willow worked she could feel remnants of love for Tara like an ember deep inside her, warming her.
(it's not real, Rosenberg)
The lips came easiest. Willow could still feel them.
When she was satisfied that the avatar on the screen was as close to real life as Willow could remember, she set the computer to start a search. She could have added Tara's name to the search algorithm, but she wondered if the apothecary wasn't using an alias. Best to stick with the truth she saw with her own eyes.
Stretching in her chair, her arm throbbing with every heartbeat, Willow merely watched for a time as thousands upon thousands of interlink files streamed across the vid screens, each instantaneously evaluated for merit and either saved or discarded.
She would not be caught by surprise again. The next time she entered the apothecary's den, she vowed to know all she could about the woman.
The possibility of never returning to the den at all had never occurred to her.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a shrill beeping. A little startled, an angry throb in her arm, she touched one of the screens and immediately saw a most beloved face.
"Xander!" she cried, her face cracking open in a huge smile.
"Willster," the man replied, grinning at her. Through the feed she could see the bland walls of Xander's apartment in Persia, dotted here and there with pictures of their little gang that was. Xander himself looked tired but well, the patch over his eye still a little jarring to her. "How is my steamboat Willy?" he continued.
"Still chugging along," Willow replied automatically, the same reply she used every time he called her a steamboat. That particular joke was almost as old as they themselves were. "And the Xan man?"
"Doing a fair impersonation of the wicked witch of the west, what with all the 'I'm melting, melting'!" he said, the last few words with the accent of a hag. "You know what, Wills, I think we need to start doing some contracts in Canada. Isn't it cold in Canada?"
"I do believe that they celebrate summer in Canada, you goof."
"Hmm. I wonder how they keep their igloo houses from melting every year."
"I dunno," mused Willow, delighting in their playful banter. "Maybe they harness a herd of yetis to move them to the north every year."
"That sounds like fun," Xander said, leaning back in his chair and yawning. "Maybe I need a new line of work. I wonder where I could get a certificate or diploma in yeti herding."
Willow had noticed the yawn and looked at the time. "Xander, it's late over there," she said. "Why are you calling? You need your beauty sleep."
"I'd rather sleep with a beauty."
"As far as I know, Angelina Jolie is not available."
"Le sigh. And after I wrote all those love poems."
"Xander, really, what's up?"
"I could ask the same of you," he countered, pointing at her arm, the bandage he could see through the video feed.
"Tis but a scratch," Willow drawled in her best Monty Python impersonation.
"Yeah, yeah, I get it. You're a knight who says ni. Next you'll be chopping down the largest tree in the forest with a herring."
"Hey, that's Robin's job, not mine. I have the supervisory role, you know, with the pointing and the scowling." She illustrated her remarks to Xander's laughter.
"I didn't know that Giles gave those kind of lessons, too. Is he turning you into a Briton? Do I need to come home and rescue you from tweed clothing and Expert Tea Brewing 101?"
"I could use some rescuing about now," Willow replied, her voice a little softer, less jovial. "And I do wish you could come home." Trying not to act too maudlin, yet still aching with missing him, Willow said, "No one around here plays poker with me. I'm terrible at poker, but they won't take advantage of me. Silly minions."
"I believe they're called lackeys," Xander said, yawning again. "We're the good guys, remember? Lackeys are good guys, minions are bad guys, and why else do you need rescuing?"
Tears sprang behind Willow's eyes and she tried to blink them away. "I dreamed of Buffy last night."
Xander's face turned somber. "Willow, do you still believe that it was your fault? You weren't the one holding the sword. You weren't the one who killed her. As I recall, you nearly died yourself."
"I should have known better," Willow said in a rush. "So soon after Persia. After you and Giles getting hurt. I shouldn't have been so careless."
"I wish I was there so I could knock some sense into your head," Xander said, ruffling his dark hair with his hand. "If only wishes and buts were candy and nuts. The past is already written, but the rest of the story doesn't have to be so bleak."
Willow choked back a sob. Xander continued, soft and intense. "You are the author of your own destiny, Willow. What's done is done. The future will be as lovely as you make it." His good eye pierced her with his steady, loving gaze. "I know it's tough, Will. I miss Buffy, too. But I know you, Willow Rosenberg. You will find your courage, and you will get your happy ending."
"Xander, how can you be so sure?"
"Because you're writing your own life story, Will. If a happy ending is what you want, then go ahead and write it."
(do I even know what I want?)
"I love you, Willow," Xander said in farewell. "Give Jupi a big sloppy kiss from me, all right?"
Willow smiled, her throat thick with encroaching tears. "I love you, too, Xander. Stay safe."
And then her oldest friend was gone, and her head and her heart were buzzing. She looked up at the screens, still riffling through page after page of data. Frowning a little, Willow pulled out an electronic pad and pen. Concentrating, she drew an approximation of the mark on the inside of Tara's elbow. She fed it into the computer, and waited a little longer.
She was almost dozing off in her chair when there was a tentative knock on the open door. Willow opened her eyes to see Jenny standing in the doorway, carrying a tray with food. Blinking in confusion, Willow asked, "What time is it?" She rubbed her eyes, her one arm shrieking in protest.
"Well past noon," Jenny replied. "You've been in here for hours. Are you hungry?"
"Famished," Willow replied, standing up and stretching. Jenny walked in and put the tray on the bare piece of desktop.
There was no mistaking it; Willow was watching Jenny as the Gyptian merely glanced at one of the screens. Jenny's body suddenly stiffened, and then relaxed, as if to convince Willow that nothing had just happened.
Not a chance. Willow was far too observant to let this go. "What is it, Jenny?" she asked.
The Gyptian sighed. "That mark," she said. "I recognize it."