Upon waking, within one slim moment Tara realized several things. She was not screaming. She was not in her own bed.
She was not alone.
The sensation of somone holding her hand came first. When she opened her eyes to a world of softly tamed sunlight and the resultant shadows over a beloved face, Tara remembered what had happened inside her house. The eyes looking back at her were sea green, anchoring her to this place of warmth and pain; eyes rolling with a universe of hurt and betrayal. It was a tightening in those eyes, the black eye that snaked from a broken nose, that Tara focused on.
There was the faintest scent of rosewater in the air, a perfume left to decay in thin bowls of algae, accompanied by a tang of bleach. A pale face came to Tara's mind, a frightening face, and a voice that lingered on Cockney consonants.
And then Jenny Calendar.
Stronger was the smell of coconut, the whisper of Chanel and hand lotion.
This was Willow.
By the look on Willow's face, a deep yet tentative hope, Willow suspected something was wrong. Had Jenny told her what transpired while she was kept in the enchanted sleep, the raping of her memories and the destruction of her most precious book?
Willow was holding her hand, and she sat in a chair beside the bed in a manner that screamed of pain, such a careful positioning of bones and muscle.
Tara remembered kicking Willow in the chest, drawing Willow's rapier and slicing her across the belly with it. As a killing machine, an activated automaton, Willow's blood had slicked her hands.
Just like Lilith.
Willow was holding her hand. Her palm was warm and dry, and her fingers were long.
Pain engulfed Tara, a drag of agony through her side, heat and hurt radiating from her leg underneath the silken sheet. Willow had skewered her with a rapier, had knifed her calf muscle, and even had laid the edge of her blade against Tara's throat. She could feel the slight pull of a transparent bandage on her neck.
Willow was waiting. With bated breath and tight eyes Willow was waiting for Tara to open her mouth and break her heart. Her eyes were a turbulent ocean and her hair was autumn, a glorious and resplendent autumn of maple magnificence, filled with secrets of earthy delights.
Her neck was bare. Tara remembered the surge of desire she had felt as she released Willow from the kiss they shared that first day, and how she wished she could press her tongue against that hollow of her throat.
Willow was waiting, and she sat so very carefully. Tara had nearly killed her.
Yet Willow had defeated her. By laying the blade of the rapier against Tara's throat, Willow had deactivated the kill switch embedded in Tara's consciousness, the kill switch Willow had tripped when she revealed her knowledge of Tara's race.
(You are a genie, Tara, and someone very evil has your collar.)
Willow had defeated her, or else Tara would still be fighting her, to the death she would be fighting, as she fought all those who discovered this secret. It was not really her Master that Willow fought, but the enemy activated by the word genie. Only in death, ritual or otherwise, could Tara stop, her death, or the death of her opponent. Kill or be killed.
Just like Lilith.
She was terrified of doing to Willow what she did to Lilith, but she really didn't want to push Willow away anymore. She was equally terrified of what would happen to her if she lost all hope. She couldn't bear becoming like Alyanya.
(the bonds of blood are tightest)
Willow had defeated her, yet she was waiting, and she held Tara's hand.
Tara remembered her library, Drusilla and the bleach and the blizzard of pages. Fear and indecision rocked her. Willow really should have killed her when she had the chance. She nearly killed Willow.
Willow was sitting so carefully, so still.
"Where else are you hurt?" Tara asked, probing the depth of those sea green eyes.
Willow frowned. "A couple broken ribs, a gash across my belly. Nothing to worry about."
"Most people would not regard such injuries so lightly. Why do you take so little note of pain?"
"Do you know who I am?" Willow asked in response, her voice softly desperate, with as much power as the downy wings of tiny baby birds pushed from the nest to plummet or fly.
Tara hated herself in that moment. It seemed all she knew was how to push. Warren Mears, her Master, Harmony and the thousands of her clients she had kissed; if Tara knew anything at all, it was how to push.
Would Willow plummet or fly?
Tara could still read her nearly completely. Willow Rosenberg was once again upon the brink of devastation and loss, but it was no violated Buffy memory this time that propelled her demise; it was the waking lie of the Apothecary, a djinn, a demon, and damned.
"Do I know you?" Tara asked, pushing the words with some effort through her throat. Willow's breath quickened on hearing those words; her fingers clutched reflexively on Tara's hand. The tentative love and the vast ache in Willow's eyes was suddenly too much for Tara to bear; she remembered Lilith.
Lilith had brown eyes and a fiery spirit, a spirit reflected in the changing landscape of Willow's eyes.
"I know you, Willow Rosenberg. I know I should have destroyed my book for you. I know you should have killed me when you had the chance." Her voice was soft as well, soft as steel wool. "You know what I am. You should have killed me." There was a burning ache in her side and along her leg; the wounds felt like liquid flame. Willow was sitting carefully. Too carefully. "Damn you, Willow, you should have killed me!"
Whatever elation Willow had felt when Tara first start speaking was gone swiftly. Her face was tight, and her fingers trembled a little as she held Tara's hand. Her eyes were glistening like the ocean seas they were. "Why, Tara? Why do you want death so much?"
(I remember Lilith)
"Why do you keep asking me to kill you?" Willow asked, perplexed. Tara had a hard time looking at her, so she looked at the bedside table for a moment. There was a cheap plastic ring on it. Tara remembered the lights of the fair, and a Christmas tree, and Buffy's mother sleeping on her side, tawny hair over her pillow, the heaviness of her heart temporarily lifted by Tara's gift.
(and six thousand years of loneliness)
"Do you need any further proof of my evil?" Tara asked, and she pulled her hand away from Willow. "I nearly killed you yesterday!" With great effort she began swinging her legs out of the bed, her side screeching like an irate fishmonger. The movement prompted a thin cloud of fog-faint, but Tara ignored it, for her heart was burning, fear slicked her tongue, and she couldn't live like this any longer. She stood up and strode to the window, dressed in someone else's clothing, her body moaning and trembling with the movement, and she embraced that pain as she embraced every pain she ever encountered.
From the window she could see paradise. Emerald green lawns and swaying trees, lily-choked fountains and sprays of peonies and roses. The blue sky was warm and chewy and motherly, holding her clouds to her bosom before sending them out to play. A bald-headed man was working soil as dark as he.
The world was still beautiful. How could that be?
(this could be heaven)
Tears trickled down Tara's face, and she could hear Willow stirring behind her.
She didn't turn around to speak. "Would you leave me to the remorse of the damned when I kill you, Willow?"
"Tara," she heard Willow say. She could easily hear how Willow's voice caressed her name, lingering on the consonants and softening them with a breath on her tongue, releasing her name as if it were a dove into the summer air. "I'm not that easy to kill."
Tara took a quick fiery breath. The cut along her leg was clever and omniscient, and her entire abdomen shrieked and cursed. It was true. Willow had defeated her, otherwise Willow would be dead. It was that simple. It was always that simple. Rare was the opponent that escaped Tara, whether she was collared by her Master or not.
Hope kindled, but Tara thrust it down. "What if I kill your friends?" Tara asked, still not looking behind her. "They say one wrong word and I'll be forced to kill them. Are you willing to take that risk?"
"Upon my oath, they will never say that word. They are all warriors here, for a reason."
Silk sheets and windows that led to paradise. This was Willow's house. How did Willow make her money?
Tara's heart burned. "I killed the last person I loved, Willow," Tara said, looking out the window. "And for four hundred years her blood has tormented me. I don't know if I can live through that again, even if I wanted to."
"What if I can save you, Tara?" Willow asked.
Lilith had thought to save Tara. Lilith died under a thumbnail moon by Tara's hand. By necessity, Tara's heart was a frozen wasteland. Who could love a weapon? A demon?
(fereste-te de omul insemnat de Dumnezeu)
Tears were staging a revolution behind Tara's eyes. "Don't even think it, Willow. No one can save me. I'm unsaveable. Accept it and move on. Don't cheapen my sacrifice."
(reasoning with Willow)
"Don't cheapen my choice," Tara heard Willow say, and her voice was ragged and bleeding. "I would walk through fire for you."
(is like trying to reason with a tidal wave)
Tara had to close her eyes. She couldn't bear to hear this, to hear pain and love so raw in Willow's throat she could practically choke on it herself. She could hear Willow start moving, the soft padding of Willow's feet on the floor.
"I'd mount an assault on the very gates of hell."
Tara lifted her chin, and tears started to flow from her closed eyes down her face. Willow was drawing closer, ever closer, wrapping Tara with words, words recognized from the dream she shared with Willow, the night of Buffy, the fair, and the Cracker Jack Ring.
Some bonds were tighter than blood.
"I would dance with the devil himself."
With that, Willow was standing behind her. Every molecule of Tara's body knew it, even with her eyes closed, even through her laboured breathing.
"There is always choice, Tara," Willow whispered, her mouth near Tara's ear. "Come what may, I choose you."
Willow was behind her; she pressed her body against Tara’s back, wrapped one arm softly around Tara’s waist and with her other hand entwined her fingers with Tara’s own. Tara was very aware of the soft pressure of Willow's breasts on her back, the rise and fall of Willow's breath, tinted with effort and pain. Recognizing the sacrifice Willow was making, knowing she dealt the wounds that pained her, Tara let her head fall back slightly to rest against Willow's shoulder, and the movement pulled lightly on the clear bandage over the thin line on her neck.
So incredibly close to her, Tara kept her eyes shut and merely allowed herself the luxury of wallowing in this most magical of moments, the coconut-Chanel of Willow's scent, the warm hand over her waist, the slim perfection of Willow's fingers inside hers. Instead of easing, the tightness in her chest thickened and multiplied, for no matter how she tried to shun this girl and turn her away, no matter that she had hurt Willow desperately, Willow was still here. Willow chose her.
Ecstasy raged inside her, for beauty had discovered her, and it wasn't just outside the house, it was inside as well; she was wrapped within a Willow-tree and the sun was her friend, and even though earthquakes would rumble and volcanoes would burst and the entire world would reel about, shaken and dismayed, Tara felt Willow behind her, for Willow chose her.
Willow snuggled deeper into the embrace, with her lips she brushed the nape of Tara's neck, brushing aside golden strands of hair with her nose. With her free hand, Tara reached back and touched Willow's thigh. When Willow breathed again on Tara's neck, her whole body tumbled in a shiver, and she made a small mew of surprise and delight.
Her back to Willow's front, Tara kept her eyes closed and breathed, her heart burning and cascading. There seemed to be a tight ball of hunger forming near her stomach, incandescent and insistent. When Willow nuzzled her neck again, and then pressed her soft lips against the bare skin, Tara's hand went from merely touching the clothing over Willow's thigh to grasping it in a fist. She could no longer breathe through her nose alone; her lungs were screaming for more oxygen. When she opened her mouth to inhale, it manifested as a gasp.
Willow's left hand, the one over Tara's waist, started to drift lower. When it reached the hem of Tara's shirt, that questing hand lifted the hem and then planted itself on the warm expanse of Tara's stomach. The sensation of Willow's hot hand on her bare skin nearly sent all her nerves crashing; with their fingers laced together Tara lifted their joined hands upwards, until Willow's palm was resting on the fabric over Tara's heart.
Willow's breathing turned ragged. Tara found herself clutched just a little tighter, her body cold where it wasn't being warmed by Willow, and her awareness dwindled until it focused on only two absolute truths, the truths of Willow's hands, one on her belly, one over her heart. For long moments they remained still, their breathing slowly harmonizing, singing to the cadence of desire mounting through them both.
There was pinkness and warmth. There was Willow. Willow chose her.
And then Willow's hand began a slow and tender migration over Tara's collarbone, her hot fingers running up Tara's neck. As the warmth of Willow's fingers touched the base of Tara's throat, Tara dropped her other hand to her side to gather a second fist of fabric.
Willow's thumb grazed the rim of Tara's bellybutton, and with her other hand her fingers trailed up Tara's neck, sliding over the thin bandage. Following the sensuous call of those fingers, Tara again tilted her head back, so her hair fell over Willow's shoulder. Willow used those fingers on Tara's throat to gently twist; soon Tara found herself looking into Willow's eyes.
They held no titanic manifestation of hurt, no torched glades of trees, no snapping and angry fires. Willow's eyes were the dappled sunshine on grass and moondrops, where thin paths led between the pools of time and memory. Looking into those eyes, Tara knew it was possible to get lost in them, to find herself among those sylvan glades, where she would feed on nectar and ambrosia and experience love strong enough to cleanse every evil memory. She would write a million books on these pleasures, lingering on every blissful moment, forgetting every pain.
Willow's eyes traveled from Tara's eyes, roving down Tara's face, becoming fixated on Tara's lips. Tara closed her eyes as she felt Willow's lips caress the skin just under her jaw; her fingers opened and closed reflexively on the fabric of Willow's pants.
Small hot kisses, and Willow's hand on her stomach anchored her; with her eyes closed Tara felt Willow slowly kiss her way closer to Tara's lips. Tara's breathing was still ragged; she found herself swaying slowly to some primal beat, whether the beating of her burning heart or the beating of the universe itself, Tara could not say. All she knew was that Willow was rocking with her, Willow's hips melded to her backside, rocking back and forth to that primal beat.
With Willow's fingers still hot on the side of her neck, Tara felt Willow kiss the corner of her mouth. When no other sensation followed Tara opened her eyes.
Willow's nose had a red line where Tara had broken it, and her cheeks were still too pale, though two high spots of colour graced them. "Tara," Willow whispered, bewitchingly close, amazingly close, impossibly close. That incandescent ball of desire kept expanding in her chest, and her desperation for a kiss nearly overwhelmed her.
"Your fists, Tara, are gripping me," Willow murmured. "Your breath tumbles when I touch you." Willow planted another soft kiss on the corner of Tara's mouth, her hand drifting lower again, once again over Tara's breast, over Tara's heart. "I feel the thunder of your heartbeat, Tara," Willow whispered.
Then their eyes were meeting each other, ocean and sky. Willow continued, her voice soft and enchanting as butterfly wings, "Every part of you wants me, Tara. Your fingers, your breath, your skin, your heart. I know you want me as much as I want you."
And Tara closed her eyes, for the sight of Willow was too much to bear, and this warmth in Willow's bedchamber was too sweet, and Tara knew that she was not a woman, not a person, not anything that deserved such love, for she had dreams to make and sell, and a quota of screams to make and the world to save from her Master. How could she live with Willow when she still remained a slave, merely property?
For the last time, Tara stood upon the precipice of this most momentous choice. On one side was every predictable facet of her life, the dreams, the screams, the loneliness. On the other side was a barely foreseeable future, shrouded in mystery but blessed with life.
Willow was right. Tara wanted her. Badly.
She did not destroy her book, as Jenny had suggested. It was no high road that Tara would walk this time; choosing some noble sacrifice that could never be fully understood. For once Tara was going to do what she wanted, no, what she needed, and consequences be damned.
A large part of her soul knew she would yet drown in Willow's blood. Perhaps Willow could drown in hers as well. As Shakespeare had written the fatal love affair of Romeo and Juliet, so it would be for at least two more star-crossed lovers.
It is better to love and lose.