Willow had never really appreciated silence. Ever since she was a child, silence was not this golden mystical gift of the gods. Silence was a weapon, adroitly wielded by her mother, menacing and virulent. Couple this silence with her mother's awesome stare, and Willow would be defeated without mercy. It became impossible to keep secrets, to defend herself, not when her mother could disassemble her with a single glance and a pregnant pause.
Willow was always compelled to fill up this silence, to demystify it, render it ordinary and without power. That first day in Tara's den had been a battle. Tara across from her, enchanting and enigmatic, looking at her as if Willow was endlessly fascinating. Tara, pulsing with heat and beauty, had been silent. Enduring the silence that day had been one of Willow's greatest victories.
They were walking down the hall, and Tara was being silent.
They had completed their impromptu tour of Willow's main house. The djinn had remained engaged, but there seemed to be something brewing behind her eyes, something that erupted into being the moment Willow revealed the tattoo.
Willow didn't often second guess herself. Now, walking next to Tara, their hands lying by their sides, separate and despairing, Willow wondered if it was wise to reveal so much so soon.
How old is she?
By the time they had made their way back to the kitchen, Willow was ready for a well-deserved rest. Try as she could to ignore the pain, it was still only a single day since Tara had nearly killed her.
Correction. Tara's master, whoever he was.
In the kitchen Jupiter had nearly leapt at her before being sharply rebuked by Jenny. The puppy managed to abate his pace somewhat, and the collision with her knees didn't entirely topple her over. It was hard to bend over to pet him, and Willow looked at Tara to see the djinn's expression.
Tara rubbed his ears, ran her hand over his fur, and her face was quiet and vulnerable.
What has this world done to her?
Jenny had outdone herself with lunch; she had prepared Shepherd's Pie, and the mashed potatoes had a hint of cream cheese in them, and there was cheddar cheese crisp and bubbling on top, served with a spinach and strawberry salad. Willow bid her staff eat elsewhere; they filled their plates and retreated to their common room. Miss Calendar's mouth was still rather taut where Tara was concerned.
(That mark. I recognize it.)
Willow and Tara ate alone, seated across from each other. The silence was not golden.
It stank of purple.
"Thank you for showing me your house, Willow," Tara said. "It's one of the most beautiful homes I've ever seen."
"I'm glad I could share it with you," Willow replied, her chest aching, her head buzzing.
It seemed to take forever before Tara finally spoke again. "There are so many things I would like to ask you, Willow," Tara started, her voice slow and thoughtful. "But there are so many things to show you as well. As much as I wish I could stay here, I really need to get back to the den."
"You have dreams to make," Willow said, trying to keep her voice from being so damned flat.
"There are always dreams to make," Tara said in response, echoing that flatness.
"Why do you make dreams, Tara?" Willow asked. It was a question that had devoured her ever since Anya told her it was possible.
Tara was quiet, and then she answered, "I am only a link in the chain of my Master's will. What I and the other Apothecaries do is demonic, and there is no heaven for the likes of us, even if such a heaven existed at all. I am no more than my collar."
"That's a rather unanswerish answer, Tara," Willow said, her heart burning and sinking with every word. The abject misery in Tara's words cut deep. "Would there be any way at all to convince you that you are more than your collar, more than a leashed hound, infinitely more than you possibly believe yourself to be?"
"There have been moments of beauty, Willow," Tara slowly replied. "There have been times when I owned my own collar, able to travel the world as I wished. Sometimes whole centuries passed in relative boredom, when I longed to climb back into a volcano and sleep the miseries of the world away. Maybe then I could have seen more possibilities and believed more of myself." She looked carefully into Willow's eyes. "Five hundred years is a long enslavement, Willow. I'm tired of fighting him."
"It's too much to assume that you can tell me his name, isn't it?"
"Unless you want to face me in combat again, yes."
"I'd rather not face you in combat ever again, Tara. You are very skilled."
"So are you, Willow. Though now I'm less surprised than I was. I should have expected as much from a Drakensdvaerder."
A little bubble of understanding inflated Willow's head. Tara did know something about the society she belonged to, the society she pledged to protect and uphold until her last breath and her last drop of blood. Things have been quiet since Persia.
Nine months of quiet. Eight months since Buffy died. If she had lived, her baby would have been born by now. Willow was going to be the girl's godmother.
If loneliness was the sea she swam in, no wonder she was desperate for a safe harbour.
Tara was anything but safe.
So although silence was her enemy, Willow waited for Tara to answer her.
Not golden silence. Purple. Imprisoned.
"Anya first has them succumb to the poppies. When the client is desperate enough, Anya whispers of what I do."
Willow remembered how the smoke scorched her throat, penetrated her muscles. In faked ease, in the best of her clothing, Willow drew the smoke through the poppy pipe and contemplated death. The woman who approached her one day, the purveyor of the den, had indeed spoken of the Apothecary, how the Apothecary could make her a dream, any dream at all.
For a price.
Willow didn't care about the money. The day she finally emerged in the Apothecary's den and received her dream and kiss from the woman, she did not pay with money. It was her heart she paid with, through the scream of a nightmare.
"The client eventually comes upstairs to my den. I speak to them, confound them, enchant them, and when they teeter on the brink of acceptance, I push them. Then they speak of their desires, whether dark or light, and I make a dream for them. I kiss them on the forehead, and they leave."
Willow's eyes narrowed as Tara spoke. The golden-haired woman wasn't looking at her during the expulsion of all these words; Tara was staring at the massacred remains of her lunch.
Forehead. She kissed everyone else on the forehead.
(She kissed me on the mouth.)
"They come back, when they are desperate for another dream. Soon they become as addicted to the dream as they did to the poppy, when waking life is the nightmare and the dream the only reality they wish. When that moment comes they go to the Catalyst.
"And Eva rips a hole through the fabrics of the world, and puts them in that life they ache for, but they cannot enjoy it, for they are always damned, for we have damned them. They have never learned to see the beauty in front of their eyes, and every moment is a farce. Dejected and despairing for the life they left behind, they eventually find themselves in hell."
"And you do this because you are forced to," Willow said.
Tara finally looked up again. "There is always choice, Willow."
"The hell there is," Willow growled. Tara's eyes widened in shock as Willow continued. "What choice is there when a small child must crawl on his hands and knees to beg for food, when his own parents were the ones who mutilated him? What choice is there when a girl must sell her body in order to stay sheltered and fed? What choice exists when the only avenues are to fight or to die?"
Willow got up from her chair, propelled by the growling beast of love in her chest, burned by her memories. Ignoring the wicked lick of pain through her muscles, Willow knelt at the base of Tara's chair and took Tara's hands in hers.
Tara's eyes were wide and blue.
"You are tired of fighting him, you say. I think I understand you, Tara. Fight or die. When only those choices present themselves to you, what else can you choose? No wonder you want someone to kill you, no wonder you wish you were dead, because then the fight would be over." Willow knew her voice was rising, but was powerless to stop it. "And yet you speak of choice, as if you could possibly choose this life for yourself as a desirable outcome, just another step in your grand progression."
"That's bullshit, Tara. I'm not denying that there is always choice, but I am saying that sometimes all choice ends."
Willow didn't even know she was crying until Tara touched the tears on her face. "By all the gods, Willow," Tara whispered, "what has this world done to you?"
And Willow remembered the cool sting of rejection as a child, when all she wanted was to play in the sun, relegated instead to the indoors where her mother could keep an eye on her. She remembered Cordelia's shrill laughter and pointed finger, Harmony and the others joining in the mockery as only lemmings knew how. She remembered wanting Xander so bad, an ache for him so deep she thought he must feel it too.
She remembered the bloodshot eyes of the Rumanian boy as he crabbed on hands and knees.
She remembered the oozing pus weeping from the brand on Jenny's back, the charnel house reek of her stinking flesh, and how she despaired that she had come just minutes too late, too late to prevent the greatest atrocity of the Gyptian's life.
Buffy's skull cracking open with blood; waking to find her beloved sister-in-all-but-blood upon a cool slab in the morgue, a tag about her toe, an unrisen Dawn dead in her womb.
Death masks and tomahawks and fountains of blood. No Venice until now.
Tara pulled her up; they stood and Tara clasped Willow in her arms. Willow could not speak; her throat was too tight. Ignoring the roaring of pain, Willow let herself sink into the embrace, the warmth of Tara's arms about her, the thudding of their hearts.
Silence. Honey golden and just as sweet. Not conquered, not defeated. Just silence, a moment for the world to right itself, a moment for balance.
Never had Willow experienced a silent moment so sweet. This embrace, the breath that grew soft, the heartbeats tamed, there was no frantic nor slow kiss to rival it. There was no remembrance of a moment such as this; this was new, luscious and sweet.
"We give to others what we can never have for ourselves," Tara whispered.
(Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving.)
Willow pulled away slightly so she could see Tara's eyes. A marriage with silence, and Willow waited.
"I give dreams, Willow, and every night I scream in the collected nightmares of the world. Above my bed is a screamcatcher; I harvest oil from it in the morning, the physical product of my screams.
"And with this oil, my Master will rule the world.
"I do this, Willow, because I and the other apothecaries are collared. We delay as much as we can without incurring the wrath of our Master, hoping to prolong the moment of the apocalypse, hoping to find some way to defeat him, even though we cannot speak his name, we cannot escape our tethers, and we kill all those who discover our secret.
"And though we fight for the good of mankind, we ourselves are hunted and persecuted, for our power is desirable, and it seems there exists no man untempted by it. Wars have been fought over our collars, our slavery has ended whole civilizations.
"We are not human, Earth is not our home, but there is little beauty here for us, not while the meekest person is corrupted by owning us. So while the strong-hearted among us fight against the Masters who own us, our blood is spilled in penance for the crimes of a few.
"You saw Jenny. You know she hates me. There is nothing she would like more than to see my demise. We are collared, Alyanya walks free, and our Master will sunder the world.
"I give dreams, Willow, because I must."
"So you give your dreams and get nothing in return?" Willow asked.
Another low and luscious smile, gracing her face, lighting up her soul, a sparkling luminescence of star-wrought sky. Willow tumbled further down the grassy slope of helpless love, knowing there was a chasm ahead, knowing the future was dim and unmarked, knowing there was no place on Earth she would rather be.
"That used to be the truth," Tara said. "But now I have you."