Tara was in her apartment the day after Willow, steadfastly working on a watercolour painting, when she heard the chime announce that someone had left the poppy den and was making their way up the stairs. Her heart flew into her throat and she set the paint brush into her watercan, her fingers trembling slightly. Even as she walked to the security vid to see who it was that ascended the steps, part of her wanted it to be Willow.
(oh God if you exist at all, please let it be Willow
but you didn't want to see her again, remember? Better? Safer?)
Wiping her hands on a towel, she touched the vid and it sprang to immediate life.
It was Warren Mears. Sighing, her heart sinking, Tara watched him through the vid, that self-confident swagger, that infantile ego that screamed I'm-god's-gift-to-women-so-please-worship-me. There was no hesitation in his step as he came up the stairs; he had long ago been immune to the smell of the stairwell, to the Chinese and skater symbols spray-painted on the walls. He was easily infuriated, and with him Tara had to strike a delicate balance of tact and push; she could serve him floral tea and he would drink it in politeness and necessity, but she would not set him on edge like she deliberately would the others.
As much as she hated to admit it, she was a little afraid of him. There was more than that hot and hasty temper; he had disturbing tastes. For a long time she wondered if he ordered the dreams he did just to see if he could get a rise out of her. The last one she made for him had nearly made her sick up.
His price was always ten thousand dollars, in a vain attempt to keep him away. She wondered if it wasn't time to increase the price, but she knew it wouldn't do any good.
It really was too bad that he was a thief, among other things, and always had the cold hard cash on hand. She hated touching the stack of bills he left for her; when she touched them she could almost see the blood spilled by bank tellers, or the cool kiss of a pistol to someone's forehead.
With that dull clatter of beads, he let himself into her parlour. For five long minutes Tara made him wait, as she brewed the tea and prepared the tray. It was almost unfortunate that she had served white tea with jasmine to Willow yesterday, for the smell should have been reserved for the redhead alone. Alas, that particular tea was also Warren's nemesis, and she felt compelled to use it once more.
Straightening her clothing and bringing the tea tray, knowing that his eyes would rove down her body like always, focusing without shame on her breasts, Tara walked through the silken curtain that separated the parlour from her apartment.
Warren was standing by the bookshelves, tapping his finger on the wood, not really looking at the titles, not really disturbed by their desperate randomness. "Hello, Warren," she said, using every ounce of willpower she possessed to keep her voice clear of rancor or ice.
"Tara," he replied, and his eyes did do that unsettling evaluation, comparing her to his other conquests, mentally stripping her down to her bare skin. He was already making his way to the garish chair
(no you fool, can't you see that is Willow's chair? You'll ruin the smell of it!)
and sitting down, leaning back comfortably with his elbows on the arms, his knees spread slightly. His every look was a challenge; Tara merely set the tea tray down and poured the tea, willing herself not to blush, not to straighten her clothes, not to let him know in any way, shape, or form that he bothered her at all.
Warren subjected himself to the ritual tea, the porcelain cup looking out of place in his hands. He sipped and stared over the rim at her.
A hundred beats of her heart.
"What can the apothecary do for you today?" she finally asked, as she must.
"That last one was mighty fine, Tara," he said effusively, as if she should take pride in her work and use him as a reference on her curriculum vitae. "When I woke I could still feel her neck under my fingers. Like a bird's neck it was, Tara, so easy to break."
Tara hoped that the real Katrina lived as far from Sunnydale as possible. If she had known the girl's last name, she might have done a search, to find her and warn her of Warren's dark fantasies.
Thus the desire to create for Warren the very perfection of dreams he asked for, dark and misogynistic as they were. The longer he confined himself to dreams, the longer Katrina lived in the real world. If Katrina ever died, Tara would think it was her own neglect that did it.
Not for the first time did Tara wish she could take her own life.
He was already continuing, not even messing about with the tea now, sitting up and looking at her. "I think I'd like to try something new," he said, a grim and maniacal smile upon his thin lips.
"What might that be?" Tara asked, sipping her own tea, congratulating herself on the calmness of her voice, inwardly taking that tea tray and smashing it over his head.
And he relayed his newest obsession to her, how instead of killing Katrina, he wanted Katrina to love him, and bow to his every whim like a robotic sex slave. When he described the clothing he wanted this unfortunate dream-girl to wear, Tara could have blanched.
Tara was a professional. She showed nothing but vague interest and a slight hint of haughty disdain.
It took a long time in her workshop to concoct his fantasy; from the ledger she familiarized herself with his most recent dream. Like all manufactured dreams, this one required a huge number of ingredients in the tiniest of amounts, added in just the right order, breathed upon at just the right time. She didn't know how he occupied himself in her parlour during the synthesis of the dream, and she knew she didn't really want to know, either.
It took nearly two hours, and when Tara paused just inside the separating curtain she was exhausted. Summoning all her strength, she tipped the dream packet into her mouth and swallowed it; it tasted rank and bitter, it tasted like the smell of decaying garbage and stale sex. It thundered behind her eyes and stayed there.
Warren already had his stack of money on the little table as she walked through the opening, the dream heavy and painful behind her eyes. She hated his power games; he would not rise as she came in, and she refused to kneel at his feet in order to be on the same level of his forehead. She endured the thought of him feasting hungrily on the sight of her breasts as she leaned over to kiss him on the forehead. With the telltale tingle the dream was transferred, and he finally left her parlour, not a minute too soon.
When he was gone Tara locked her steel door and activated the alarm. Trembling with the memory of the dream she had made for him, Tara swiftly walked into her apartment and opened the cabinet of spirits. She poured herself a tot of brandewijn and downed it in one swallow; it burned its way down her throat and sent flames over her body.
Mankind was doomed. This world was corrupt. After enduring clients like Warren Mears, Tara wondered why she and the other apothecaries worked so hard to hide Dawn. Why expend so much effort in saving a world that didn't even deserve to be saved?
(Would you condemn the innocents to that fate? Would you condemn Willow to endless night and no Dawn?)
Sighing, Tara once again returned to the parlour, sitting in the chair opposite. Yesterday it had smelled of Willow, of her Chanel, her coconut hair, her lotion slicked hands. Today it smelled of Warren, of expensive cologne, of mild sweat; with the memory of his dream still in her mind, Tara's lips felt thick and violated. She lifted a strand of her hair to look at it; it had changed to nearly all brown, save for being tipped in her natural gold.
Oh, how she would scream tonight.
(from the nightmare of my life I will never awake)
At various times throughout that age-long day, Tara found herself thinking of Willow, glancing so very often at the security camera, knowing that if Willow were upon her steel-shut door she would certainly open it. Though she tried to argue with herself, to the convincing that Willow would never return, that she had hurt Willow, that the girl was much too smart to return to this place of horrors, Tara realized that some part of her actually believed that Willow would come back, even if only to demand a refund.
Willow did not come, but evening did. Tara was quiet during her dinner with Eva; the catalyst told her that she would be leaving again in the morning, for the apothecary in Siam had alerted her that one of her clients was likely to ask for the next step. For that unknown person Eva would rip a hole in the fabrics of the world and place him in a universe so similar to this one, but with all the right differences. Eva would find a world for this client where circumstances had been slightly different, a crucial decision at just the right time producing an outcome the client thought must surely be better than this one.
(the fools, the damned)
Would they wish for someone not to drive one fateful night, waking in the morning in their bed and not a corpsicle in the morgue? Would they wish for some abuse to be erased? Eva would find a better world and put them there, and they could never look back.
If only Tara's life could be changed so easily. She knew what she would wish for.
(I would have killed my Master when he was a baby, so none of this would have happened.)
Tara didn't really have to create any dreams tonight; she would fill her scream catcher and subsequent ink quota easily with the consequences of Warren's dream. But making the dreams kept her busy, kept her mind occupied, kept Willow thoughts at bay, so she made five. They were lushly beautiful, as if she could use them to wash away her guilt.
(forgive me, Katrina)
Then away before nine in the evening, on her motorcycle again, delivering each of the five dreams that she had prepared, entering locked homes with the touch of her fingers, only stopping when there was no gold remaining at all in her tresses.
The screamcatcher full to the brim upon awakening, the sheets rucked up about her body, chilly with cold sweat, a cramp in her stomach of the viciousness she had witnessed, her limbs trembling as if she had run a marathon in the night, endlessly running as if to escape the evils of the world that chased her.
Surely Willow would come this day. Willow must have seen it, that weariness, that desperation in Tara's eyes. Didn't the kiss haunt her, tease her with its addiction, forming a bedrock of desire for Tara that could never be altered or forgotten?
(she killed me, remember? The cool bite of the sword, the raging flood of the wound? Willow will not come.)
And Willow did not come. Tara reviewed the tapes from downstairs, wondering if the redhead had returned at least for another dose of opium, another shot of narcotic bliss, dragonsbreath making a hellish halo about her head.
No Willow in the poppy den, either. Her client on the second day after Willow
(and am I really going to measure time that way now, reckoning each day in this lonely linear march?)
was a middle-aged Valley-girl, bubbleheaded and brainless, chattering a mile a minute, each shrill word so contrary to her name of Harmony. This was Harmony's first visit to Tara's den, and although the woman was rising thirty years old, she still requested a dream of high school days, where she would be the leader of the popular posse, not a "Cordette" anymore but...
"Gee, I suppose Cordelia's name really fit the name of our little group. It doesn't sound the same if it's the 'Harmonettes', or the 'Harmonies'." Tara's newest and most learning challenged client tossed her blond hair and continued, "Actually, that's all right. Can you make sure that everyone knows we're the 'Harmonies', and get Kevin to ask me to the prom? I mean, Cordelia may have wanted to go with Xander, but he was such a nobody, always hanging around with that strange Buffy and that nerd Willow."
Almost lulled by the hypnotic spouting of words, Tara jumped slightly at hearing Buffy's and Willow's unusual names, wondering if Harmony spoke of the same people in Tara's thoughts. With every ounce of nonchalance she could muster, Tara asked, "Willow? That sure sounds like a funny name. What was she like?" Tara made her question so vacuous and innocent that Harmony quickly replied.
"OMG, Willow was the most spastic person I knew in high school, always wearing drab clothes and spending her free time in the library. Everyone always said how smart she was; I used to think that using up so much brain space for being smart was the reason she was so socially challenged. In hindsight, I should have made friends with her; she's incredibly rich now and probably has no idea how to spend her money. I'd kill for some Prada. Wait, can you also include some Prada, maybe some Jimmy Choos? What I wouldn't give for matching handbags and shoes.
"Oh my god, I just made a rhyme!" She clapped briefly for her brilliance and grinned.
Tara wanted to ask another question, and another, and even another, pumping this girl for any Willow-bytes of information, but she held her tongue. No good arousing suspicion, no good thinking about Willow at all, because Willow was not coming back, she was not.
(was not was not was not...
have you convinced yourself yet?)
Harmony's dream was easy and quick; the client filed her nails while she waited in the parlour, popping bubblegum in her mouth as if her development had arrested completely upon graduation. From the moment Tara looked at her newest client, she knew that Harmony worked as a nail technician in a seedy Nipponese nail salon, jabbering inanely with the local girls from the high school who came for manicures and pedicures. She was not aware of how they pitied her and her fixation on high school days; when they left they would make fun of the thirty-year old ignoramus, vowing to do all in their power to evade a similar fate.
Harmony had never left the United States, not even to visit Canada or Mexico. With her paltry salary she lived in a tiny apartment, shared with a room-mate who had a penchant for stealing any spare rupahs lying around.
To all this Harmony was discordant and obtuse. A parody. Tara would have drawn attention to it if she hadn't realized Harmony would have no idea what she was talking about.
(how did Willow make her millions?)
There was not so much brown this time, even with all Tara's efforts. With Eva gone, Tara made her own supper of sackcloth and ashes, then built six dreams and took them about town. Even with those efforts, she made only an inch of ink that night.
The third day after Willow dawned, and no one climbed her steps. After her deliveries Tara ached with loneliness, weeping on her pillow, knowing that no one could hear her, and that no one cared.