And then came the seventh day.
True to Tara's word, and as a result of her great fear, she worked hard all the previous afternoon, making more complex dreams than usual. They had a greater chance of failure, but if they were absorbed they would provide more screams. As guilty as she felt with the unbidden knowledge of Buffy, Tara went back to that house on Revello Drive.
The dream she so carefully prepared was of Christmas, the lights, the tree, the feast. Buffy and Willow and a dark-haired young man, eating until they were stuffed, drinking jenniver wine until pleasantly noshed, Buffy at her comedic best
(it's not blackened, it's cajun. Cajun pie.)
and the mother smiling until her cheeks ached. The golden dream sifted on her and the unnamed woman swallowed it greedily, not noticing the touch of Tara's lips to her forehead.
Later Tara screamed.
After forcing hot cereal down her throat, she dressed in tight blue jeans and a shimmering blue v-neck blouse with mother-of-pearl buttons, flared sleeves that opened to her elbows, revealing her mark. She drew on brown leather ankle high boots with just enough heel to accentuate the grace of her legs. Her makeup expertly applied, her hair a golden flood over her shoulders, diamonds dangling from her ears, Tara looked at herself in the mirror and nearly loathed the person staring back at her.
(is this really the lesser of the evils, Tara?)
Willow would not come. Did Tara really expect one kiss on the mouth to change the course of her life?
(No, just to sweeten the dregs, that's all)
Besides, Willow should not come. If she ever discovered the truth about Tara, another of her Master's compulsions would come into effect.
(No more blood. Please no more blood.)
With a sigh, Tara parted her curtain, intending to open her vaulted steel door to the public, to lure them into her den like a spider would a fly, and take from them what she must, because this really was the lesser of the evils, only she stood between this world and its annihilation and Dawn was the key.
She yelped in surprise and fright as she noticed someone standing in her parlour. Her heart a galloping horse, all she could do was stare.
Willow was standing by her shelf, her back to the apothecary, that same beloved book in her hands.
At least it looked like Willow.
There was no hesitation of poppy den virginity here, no soft and seductive brands of designer clothing. This Willow was dressed like a mercenary in calf-high black leather boots, each adorned with the bright hilt of a dagger. She wore tight black pants that clung to every shapely muscle, a simple white tunic with discreet golden embroidery on the hems. The sleeves were capped and flaring, baring her tanned and gently muscled biceps. Her autumn hair was braided and whorled into a cunning twist, with soft tendrils escaping to fall in front of her ears.There was a thin bandage on her right arm.
And a red-tassled rapier belted to her lithe hips, the sword belt riding just a hint too low over the gold-hinted tunic, just enough to accentuate the slimness of her waist, the modest swelling of buttocks and breasts. Seeing her in profile Tara noticed yet another dagger sheathed at the very back of the sword belt.
On the floor next to her was a battered knapsack, stained with much use and travel.
"How did...?" Tara managed to gasp as her heartbeat was reined in.
Willow did not look at her to respond; she cut Tara off midsentence with, "I temporarily disabled your security system. Don't worry, I've reactivated it. We won't be disturbed."
The voice was Willow's, but where the Willow of a week ago
(oh another Willow that was)
had been soft and fragile, a blade of grass to bend in the wind, this Willow was all tempered edges and bone. In one moment of that piercing clarity Tara was cursed with, she knew exactly what had happened to change her.
(I kissed her on the mouth)
With slow and deliberate fingers, Willow turned a page in the book.
It was supposed to be a dream of Buffy-bliss at the fair. It was supposed to be a golden memory of starshine and fairy lights, of popcorn and cracker jack rings. After being reminded of how essential Willow was to her best friend
(I would walk through fire for you, Willow)
Willow was supposed to leap from the ground, defying all the laws of physics and science she knew by heart
(I'd mount an assault on the very gates of hell)
the purple fingers of twilight caressing her like no other lover
(I would dance with the devil himself)
as she flew through the air on wings composed of those beloved assurances, Tara herself the wind beneath those wings.
Born to fly.
Had anyone ever betrayed Willow as deeply as Tara? This precious, beloved, essential woman had come to her den, had lowered all her stout defences, allowed Tara a glimpse into her soul, all for a dream, a shining reminder that life was still beautiful, that the world still had merit, that even though Buffy was dead Willow still deserved to live.
Tara kissed her on the mouth, and slaughtered her dream, and maybe even ruined her forever.
Looking at this Willow, this terrifying and mysterious sword-bearing Willow, Tara wanted to weep. Willow's neck so rigid, her jaw so tight, her entire body motionless and unforgiving. That small frown on her face, the bandage on her arm
(Oh, I am damned)
and the slim red-tassled rapier on her hips.
(We won't be disturbed.)
"Have you come to kill me?" Tara asked, after tasting her readiness to speak on her tongue. In the periphery of her vision Tara could see the vault door still bolted shut, just as she had left it near midnight last night. Willow had broken in somehow, which meant that Willow had more skills than Tara thought possible.
(I don't really know her at all)
"Do you deserve to be killed?" Willow replied, still not looking at her, looking at the book instead, the words artfully arranged to whisper of a world of magics and betrayals and Turkish delight. Did CS Lewis write from experience? When he finally went to Eva, did she send him to Narnia?
"Yes," Tara replied, simply, and without hesitation.
Now Willow put the book down, showing that same practiced reverence and care she had revealed a week earlier. The woman turned to face Tara, her hand on the hilt of the rapier. Her eyes were a crackling green fire, snapping and blistering hot. Her face was immaculately made up, her lips a compelling shade of red, and tight, and somber. Her hair the colour of autumn leaves, a final display of glory before the dead of winter.
(I am her winter)
She was the most beautiful woman Tara had ever laid eyes on.
There was a steely whisk of sound as Willow pulled the rapier from its scabbard. The folded and honed blade was etched with Nipponese symbols, and the soft light of the room seemed wounded by its glinting edge. As she watched Willow hold the blade along her side with competent grace, Tara instantly knew that Willow was an accomplished warrior.
Would Willow tell her how she made her millions before she killed her?
Willow crossed the scant space between them, slow and confident and fiercely determined, her booted heels making no noise on the Persian carpet. When she was two feet from Tara, she stopped. With a blurred whiplike motion the tip of the rapier was suddenly pressing lightly against Tara's blue blouse. Tara never blinked. Had she been an actual enemy, she would already be dead.
(get her out)
Willow's grim eyes still focused on hers, green tulipani jewels hidden in the dark spaces of the world, never restful, never budging. "Would you have me be your executioner?" Willow asked, her voice still soft, still deadly.
Which of them was the spider, and which was the fly?
"I would have no other," Tara whispered, her heart in her throat but not because of fear. Would Willow see it so?
"You hate me that much?" Willow growled, but then she abruptly cut herself off, tossing her head slightly to the side, her jaw even tighter. Tara's eyes flew wide open, and she begged to tell Willow that's not what she meant, but she could say no words, not while she looked in Willow's eyes, not while there was no cracker jack ring on Willow's pinky finger.
(get her out now)
The tip of the rapier was hovering near her stomach. "It was here, wasn't it Tara? In the dream?" the terrifying woman asked.
Tara's throat was too tight, so she would have to use her fingers to answer. Her hand remarkably steady, Tara took the flat of the blade and lifted it until it hovered near her heart, Willow allowing the movement. When Tara put her hand by her side again, Willow's face had not changed; she still looked like a destroying angel. Their eyes focused on each other, Tara could see something very clearly, almost like actual words.
(read your enemies eyes and conquer them)
Would death feel the same as it did in the dream? That cool kiss of steel, followed by that raging fire?
(please kill me, Willow)
It could not, for in the dream the fiery wound was accompanied by Willow's desperate hands, beloved hands that had known the silky touch of Tara's skin, had tasted that skin in so many different places, had loved that skin and the soul within.
It could not. The dream-Willow had loved her, had cried out for her, had rocked her to death like a babe.
This death, this avalanche of Willow, these rolling boulders and spikes of ice; this death would be as cold and lifeless as Tara's entire universe, reflecting the deadened winter of Willow's eyes. It would still be a vast improvement on her current circumstances. Indeed, Tara would have no other.
"And do you have nothing to say in your defence?" Willow was asking, the quiet of her voice losing none of the intensity.
Tears sparked behind Tara's eyes, but she forced them down.
(he has my collar
but the choice has always been mine)
"No," Tara said, in a voice as clear as she could manage.
Despite the weight of the steel and the cut on the sword-arm, the tip of the rapier did not vacillate at her chest. Willow's strong muscles kept it steady; Tara could see the rippling concentration in Willow's neck muscles and collarbone. Tara decided that she would not close her eyes for this. No, she would look upon Willow for her last breath, and even if she said no more words before the blade found her heart, with her eyes she would whisper, and Willow would know she was thanked for the tremendous gift.
(I would have no other.)
Willow's lip trembled, her eyes a mystery.
And it took the redhead several tries to guide the rapier back into its scabbard; when it finally slid home Willow clipped off the scabbard, leaving her low and luscious belt over her hips, and let the weapon drop to the floor.
The clatter of sound did not free them from the wildfire of their eyes. Could either of them survive the inferno without being utterly consumed?
Tara could see Willow swallow and lick her lips as she took another step towards Tara. In the hollow space between them Tara could almost feel the warmth coming from the woman, heat radiating from those burning eyes.
The last best step, and then Willow was the entire universe, the sight of Willow the only landscape that existed. The scent of Willow now, that strong coconut rinse, the mild Chanel, the hint of hand lotion and stropped leather.
There was that pendant again, resting just below the hollow of Willow's throat. What would she taste like there?
(why is she here?)
Willow was lifting her hands, and Tara stared at Willow's wrists, slender and strong with a perfection that made her weak. She desperately wanted to take that wrist, lick it with her tongue, feeling the precious current of blood before kissing it with her lips.
Willow was lifting her hands, and Tara wondered if this was the end now for her, if Willow would take her slender and damning neck and break it with one swift and commanding move.
Willow was lifting her hands, and she placed her hot fingers on the smooth expanse of Tara's cheeks, her thumbs just under Tara's chin, and Tara shocked and immobile now, for verily the touch was summer fire, roaring and consuming, and for Tara it had been only winter for so very long, winter of deadened hopes and mutinous dreams, of cracking blizzards and inky screams.
Willow's eyes the lush and fertile forest, greenways teeming with life and energy, pathways along time and memory with vistas too beautiful to be imagined, and Tara wanted to lose herself in that forest forever, to walk along those sunlit trails, warmed by Willow-sun until she could forget that she had ever been abandoned and cold.
Expectation and surprise and raging desire clenching her insides, weak, breathless, and defenceless.
(Please kill me, Willow, please)
Willow held Tara's face in her hands, and her mouth was so very close. If someone were to interrupt them, they would have been mistaken for lovers.
(before I kill you)
"By all the gods, Tara," Willow whispered, choking on the words, her lips and mouth so close that Tara felt the words strike her skin, "what has this world done to you?"