There was nothing to hint of yesterday's spilled blood in the luxury sedan. Not even a whiff of bleach, accompanied by air freshener. Willow wondered if Faith had just gone out and bought an identical new car.
No new car smell, though. Only the scent of Tara.
The divider was up between the front and back seats, and there was barely any sound as they made their way down the long private drive. Willow looked at Tara quite openly, a small smile on her face as she vicariously enjoyed the breathtaking beauty of her estate through the eyes and warm hand of the djinn. Tara had just revealed that she was six thousand years old, give or take a century or two; the idea that this woman could still appreciate beauty made Willow's heart clench. With each new vista, Tara's smile would grow richer and more fervent, and she would accompany her delights with a squeeze of Willow's hand.
"You know, I half expected there to be a secret underground lair with all sorts of advanced weaponry and cool toys for espionage," Tara said, smiling broadly as they exited the estate through the reinforced steel gates. "Though the rest of the world may not know it, the Drakensdvaerder are real-life superheroes."
"In the end, we are only humans with a whole lot of training, though a different training from Navy SEALS or other armies. I doubt they have to know the shamanistic rites of the Tartars or the proper way to disenchant a voodoo doll."
Tara laughed. "Only humans? What a mean description of yourselves."
"Well, compared to the rest of the supernatural world. The first time I saw a harpy, I about peed on myself."
"You saw a harpy? As a harpy?" Tara sounded incredulous. Willow certainly had been, at the time.
"I know they appear human most of the time, as nearly all supernatural beings do. This one was a personal pet of the Shah of Persia. Even then I had to use the special lenses to see her as she truly was."
"So no secret underground chamber?" Tara pressed. "No cool spy toys?"
Willow laughed out loud
(why is she asking this?)
and answered, "It would hardly be the house of a mercenary and superhero without one. There are a few places we didn't quite hit on our first tour. More the reason to have you return, you see?"
"You don't need to fabricate anything to have me return," Tara said, smiling and squeezing Willow's hand. The dark fir and glorious oak trees of Miller's Woods crowded the road as they sped by. "It is a good thing that you live this close to Sunnydale," Tara said.
"Why is that?" Willow asked.
"I am also bound by geography," Tara slowly admitted. "I cannot go further than about fifty miles from the poppy den. If I just push the boundary, I feel enormous pain emanating from my mark. If I breach the boundary, I fall unconscious."
Willow's jaw tightened, almost unconsciously. There was a renewed beast of rage within her breast, a simmering anger directed at Tara's unnamed Master, the same anger she had directed at the Persian who had injured Xander and Giles, and the same anger she had directed at herself after Buffy died. "I really wish I could find this guy and introduce him to Morris and Gisella. Or my rapier."
"Morris and Gisella?" Tara prompted.
Willow kissed her left fist, still warmly clutching Tara's hand. "Morris," she said. Kissing her right fist, she said, "and Gisella."
"You've named your hands?"
"Hey, don't knock it. It comes in handy when you're training in unarmed combat. It's nice to know that even if I appear weaponless, I always have Morris and Gisella."
"I suppose I'm not so much curious about naming hands as the names of your hands themselves."
Willow wasn't quite ready to divulge the etymology of her hand naming to the woman who had captured her heart, so she diverted the question by answering, "Well, Xander named his hands Puddinpop and Chocolate Hoo Hoo. He actually knocked out our instructor that day because the man was so busy laughing."
"I thought laughter was supposed to be medicine."
"Just like silence, laughter can be a blessing and a curse at the same time." Even though her voice had grown pensive, Willow noticed with some delight that Tara was shuffling closer to her, sliding easily over the leather seats that had so recently been strewn with blood drops. That same tangible and volcanic heat was rising from the blonde woman.
Six thousand years.
"Can I ask you something?" Willow asked. "I'm about to change the topic."
"Thanks for the warning. Ask what you will."
"You mentioned earlier that you wished you could crawl back into a volcano. With the use of the word 'back', I concluded that you must have spent some time inside one before now."
"An astute deduction. My favourite volcano is the House of the Sun, the Haleakala of Maui."
By now Willow felt immune to Tara's sensational words. There seemed to be nothing that could shock her anymore. From her work with the Drakensdvaerder she had learned much of the supernatural world; just enough, in fact, to know that there were many things she didn't know. Buffy and then Xander had always tried to protect her from the world; first as high school students battling the hordes of catty Cordettes, then as soldiers in the army of the Drakensdvaerder.
(The harpy sang to one of the Shah's prisoners, and the man went insane.)
Because of their combined efforts, the paranormal world had never come so close to her ever before.
(Why was she so bothered by the Piri Reis map, or my tattoo?)
"So your least favourite would then be...?"
"Definitely Beerenberg on the Jan Mayen Island of Norvegia."
"Okay, Tara, I'll bite. Why would you be in either of these volcanoes?"
Tara's eyes were sparkling, and her cheeks were rosy and her hand was warm. A raw surge of desire crackled through Willow's body. The discovery that she alone was the instigator of such eye-sparkling, such warmth, was almost terrifying. Tara had opened up to her faster than she had anticipated in all of her contemplated designs. A small part of her wondered if she was worthy of such confidences, of such devotion.
Another small part wondered if Tara was playing her, like the six thousand year old collared-by-an-evil-Master djinn that she was.
"And here I thought you had done your homework, Willow," Tara chuckled.
"It's rather hard to discover anything about your race, Tara," Willow replied. "What with the imminent shedding of blood and all." The moment the words left her mouth, Willow would have paid any amount to have them back. Tara blinked and her eyes grew wary, but even that small gesture screamed of the hurt Willow had just inflicted. "I'm sorry, Tara," Willow gushed. "That was stupid of me. I shouldn't have said it."
"I shouldn't have baited you," Tara replied, her eyes slowly returning to normal. "You just seemed to know so much about me, in the den and since then. It's strange, knowing there is a human who knows so much. Strange, and a little dangerous, as well."
Willow thought she knew all about danger. "You don't have to tell me about the volcanoes, or anything else, you know," Willow said in a rush, even though she suspected the curiosity would drive her mad.
Curiosity always did. When she was eight years old she had dismantled the family horloge to study the inner mechanisms of springs and gears. Her parents seemed simultaneously proud that she had so much interest in engineering and horrified at the boundaries she would break in pursuit of such knowledge. They had such dreams for her back then, of conquering the world in academic battles of wit and word. When Willow was drafted after high school into the society that would eventually mean everything to her, they had disowned her entirely. No more becoming of engineers, doctors, or even lawyers. Willow had followed blonde Buffy Summers like a well-heeled dog, only taking scraps and beatings when she could have had the entire academic world presented to her on a platter.
They stuck to their stance even after Willow made her first million dollars, which only saddened Willow more. Rosh Hashanah was always awkward; any messages sent through the Interlink to her parents would get returned, unopened. No wonder Xander and Buffy and their small circle of friends had become her surrogate family.
Giles had become more a father to her than Ira Rosenberg ever would be. And Joyce Summers her adopted mother.
Joyce had left for Tehran today, summoned by Xander for reasons Willow did not know. She was so tempted to find out those reasons, ferreting out that secret as she had so many others.
"Where are you, Willow Rosenberg?" she heard a voice ask.
Willow squeezed Tara's hand. "Just thinking about my curiosity. Buffy always said it would kill me in the end."
"Tell me a bit more about Buffy?" Tara asked.
A younger and more innocent Willow would have been completely sidetracked by the winsome smile on Tara's face, those seductive sparkling eyes, leading her away from the points of her own questioning, but not this Willow. This Willow who had been hurt too many times, this Willow that harboured a small and liquid fear that Tara would yet betray her.
(Just like Jenny and Giles. Just like everyone else.)
So it was by choice that Willow abandoned her questioning of the volcanoes, making a mental note to ask again later.
Faith had driven them out of Miller's Woods and they were softly cruising through the streets of Sunnydale on the path that had become so familiar to her; the painted fire hydrants, the white-magic shop for tourists, the lovers tree on the edge of the cemetery carved with the initials of over a thousand names enveloped in hearts. The W.R.+X.H. was miniscule in comparison to all the others, tucked behind a swollen bole so Xander nor anyone else could ever find it. After Buffy arrived, she had scoured the tree for the initials X.H.+B.S. but she'd never found them.
"She meant the world to me," Willow said, looking beyond Tara to the achingly familiar streets of the city she grew up in. "It took years for me to understand what I meant to her. I always had this friendship equation in my head, and I was always lacking. I thought I needed her far more than she needed me. She was beautiful, she was witty, she was strong and charming, she had beautiful clothes and a large allowance. Every summer her mom would take her and Dawn places, all over the globe, and she would come back with stories and souvenirs. I wanted to hate her, so many times I wanted to despise her, but she always showed her true nature. In all things she was generous; with her love, with her time, with her money, with her loyalty. I felt I was constantly falling deeper and deeper into debt with her, never able to pay off even in friendship and homework help what she had already given me."
Willow thumbed the emptiness of her finger where the cracker jack ring had perpetually lived. Her finger felt naked, but she was almost surprised to find that speaking of Buffy didn't hurt as it used to.
Tara was sitting right next to her now, their legs touching, and she took their joined hands and put them on Willow's leg. The simple comfort and the wave of heat borne from it shook Willow to the core.
"When did you find out what she thought of you?"
"It started the night of the fair," Willow said slowly. "The remainder happened after Buffy ascended to the position of Marshal-General."
(and then came Riley)
Willow was looking at Tara when she said these words, determined to see Tara's reaction to them.
And there it was. The slightest flinch, the slightest hesitation. A small note of fear, of wariness.
Six thousand years.
(ink drawn on the skin of a gazelle, on a map of the world thought to have perished)
"How old are you, Willow?" Tara asked.
This time Willow had to blink in surprise. "I am thirty one years old."
"Thirty one," Tara echoed. There was wonder in her voice. "I've never been able to completely understand humans," Tara continued. "How it is possible to cram so much into your lives? You are just a blink of an eye to us, you flash into beauty so sudden and so frail, shining briefly like a fallen star before returning to the earth again. How do you live so fiercely?"
Willow knew by the joyous expansion in her breast that this answer required more than words. This truth needed all language to be expressed. "Because one life is all that we are given," Willow said, and even though her ribs crackled in pain, shortening her breath and igniting her veins, she leaned in to Tara, and there was no hesitation now, no chasm of reason to separate them. She heard Tara's light gasp as she leaned in to kiss her, and then there was only Tara's lips, her teeth and her tongue, her mouth a silken cave to plunge into.
Willow ignored the pain of her chest as Tara wrapped her arms around her, one of Tara's heated hands near her neck, the other fluttering down her shoulder blades, and down, tracing a line of fire along the curve of her spine, down to the flaring hemline of her shirt. Willow was quite sure she wouldn't be able to contain the passion rising inside her, a tidal wave to meet Tara's volcanic heat.
But then Tara moaned softly, and opened her mouth to Willow's gently questing tongue.
And then, of all things, Tara leaned back, just slightly, yet she pulled with her strong and lithe hands, until Willow found herself nearly in her lap, kissing her fast and ferocious now, little sound but the gasps of stolen breaths, the hint of captured sighs, their world this little car bubble with tinted windows.
Pulling away just long enough to breathe properly, Willow's lips began a more studious appraisal of Tara's face; her cheeks, her nose, her lips, touching each with her own rosebud mouth. It was a sensual seduction of all her senses; Willow could barely imagine that she was being so brazen, so, so...
No fumbling, no excuses, no short-sightedness or any hint of delay. Tara was here, and Tara was responsive, and the joy of kissing Tara, of feeling her hot fingers, of feeling the thunder of her heartbeat, was the most exquisite thing Willow had ever experienced.
The car rolled to a stop, and they finally paused. Pulling away to look at Tara, at her now-disheveled hair, her lips and the slight sheen on her skin, Willow only wanted to continue her discoveries, and abate her curiosity.
Six thousand years.
There would be time.