Tara was vaguely aware that they had arrived at the back entrance of the den, near the shed where she kept her motorbike. It took several moments for her to regain her composure; every Willow-moment was intoxicating, and Tara felt herself becoming as addicted to Willow's touch as Anya's clients were to the poppies. Yet every moment with Willow skirted a narrow chasm of anxiety and fear: what if she led Willow to harm? What if Willow wanted to save her?
What if Willow died because of her?
She could let Willow into her heart, but she ached with indecision regarding Willow's role in her future. As First Lieutenant of the Drakensdvaerder, Willow stood a better chance than anyone at freeing Tara from her imprisonment. But if harm should come to her, should death stop the curiosity of the green-eyed wonder-seeking girl, Tara would go mad or give up entirely.
The physical pain of this moment was nearly unbearable, with her skewered side and the sutured rip down her leg. Never had Tara wanted Anya's assistance more, but she felt she should not even speak to her colleague while Willow was around, let alone be party to Anya's brand of magic.
She held Willow's hand as they slowly got out of the car. It had not been a long drive, but it had been an intense one. The street children were already clamouring around the car, begging Faith for cigarets or games. The lush, dark-haired driver ignored them while she helped Willow and Tara to their feet. After that, she made no motion to follow them; it seemed she would stay by the car until summoned or dismissed.
Tara led the way up the stairs, pockmarked with rust and eroded with time. At the top of the second landing of the stairs, she looked down to see the voluptuous woman lighting up. As before, something chimed in her memory, something she ought to know but was eluding her. Faith was blowing smoke rings to the delight of the children, but her laugh was hollow and her smile was mocking no one as much as herself.
Tara wished that Eva were home. Eva would know how to read her, especially when she managed to seduce her. Never if. When.
Willow was behind her now, trying to be quiet and graceful. Tara touched the lock, which immediately slicked back at her touch. "You must have reengaged the lock when we left yesterday," Tara said.
"Yes, I had Faith bring a cleanup crew and she took care of the lock and the mess. It wouldn't be very nice if everything you owned got plundered while you were gone."
Tara nodded, but she could care less for her worldly possessions. All she cared about were the contents of her workroom. Willow seemed stunned by the simple way in which Tara opened the door; she asked, "You don't need keys?" Her voice was timid and small. Did she remember stumbling down these stairs with Tara in her arms, the den ripped to shreds and blood in Narnia?
"There is no lock on earth that I can't penetrate," Tara said, opening the door.
(I'd make a very good Drakensdvaerder if I wasn't one of the bad guys)
A faint whisper of scent came to her on the draft of the door; Tara smiled. This was home. She couldn't help but notice how Willow also seemed to breathe deep. She had only to look at Willow and raise an eyebrow for Willow's face to turn crimson, a strangely menacing colour next to her black eye. "It smells like you," Willow said, sniffing again. "Could we bottle this somehow so I could take it with me wherever I go? Every moment I am not with you I could open it and sniff it and perish with delight."
"I don't believe you're allowed to perish of anything, missy," Tara growled, smiling. She almost timidly led the way into her apartment. "I guess you've seen some of this already," Tara said. "I haven't quite figured out how you broke into my apartment."
"I didn't want to overly invade your privacy," Willow admitted quickly. "I used one of my cool espionage tools called a resonator to spring the lock just after midnight and then I waited in the den until morning." Willow didn't say it, but Tara could imagine it, how Willow would have paused at the entrance to Tara's bedchamber, watching her sleep, before retiring to the den. Did Willow sit in Tara's chair, sniffing and perishing in delight?
No. Back then, Willow had a mission. A purpose. A design. She would have slept but little, rehearsing her plans, and then listening to Tara scream.
(I give dreams, Willow, and every night I scream in the collected nightmares of the world.)
Tara paused at a bolted steel door, put her fingers to the door and the door sprang open. "This is my workshop," Tara said, entering the space and beckoning for Willow to follow her.
By the evidence in Willow's library, Tara knew the redhead had seen many interesting things. Willow might have been inside the Papal Vault of Vatican City. She most likely had seen the subterranean armory and treasure house of the Shah. In Tokyo and Tenochtitlan, she could have seen the tourist shops of harmless white magic.
(What is the name of the harpy imprisoned by the shah? Do I know her?)
By the look on Willow's face, she'd never seen anything quite like this.
Tara stood back and watched as Willow began to wander the long and narrow stacks of shelves. She seemed amazed by the thousands upon thousands of jars on these shelves, containing nearly every substance known to man. There were livers of newts, and petals of hellebore, and scrapings of rust. There were thick and gelatinous substances as well as red powders and thin tinctures. Herbs of every variety. Specimens of ash and sand. Bonemeal and pyrophite and volcanic glass. Shredded diamonds. Feathers. Seeds. Hair. Dusts.
Bright with pain, Tara went and rested at her worktable while Willow worked her way through the stacks. Her eyes narrowed as she noticed the slow gait of her new girlfriend, the hand that would occasionally lift to her chest as if to touch the ribs that Tara had broken. It seemed apparent that Willow did not regard pain as any sort of obstacle whatsoever; a thought that saddened her. How many broken noses and broken limbs and wounds had been dealt to her to make her deem them so inconsequential? Willow's face when she finally made it back to Tara's side was open yet pained. She touched the scarred worktable and the stone mortar and pestle and flipped idly through the enormous bound ledger. Her face was a touch too pale, and there were beads of sweat on her brow, whether from pain, nervousness, or heat Tara could not say.
"I had wondered why they called you The Apothecary," Willow said, once again surveying the room with an appreciative glance.
Tara kept her eyes on Willow as she said, "This is where I make dreams. I cast myself into a trance, collect ingredients from my jars, combine them in my pestle and then breathe upon them. For my clients, I swallow the concoction, and then kiss them on the forehead to transfer the dream. For others, I make generic dreams and take them to random homes, sifting the powder over them and hoping they absorb it."
(do you wonder why I didn't kiss you on the forehead?)
"And the hair colour?" Willow asked.
"It is a barometer of how much I will scream in the night. The more complicated a dream, the more I will scream. I don't lose much hair colour making free dreams, which is why I have clients at all."
"Because your screams turn into oil," Willow said, apparently linking all the information together. Tara wondered if Willow had seen the twisted screamcatcher on the wall above Tara's bed, and if she had wondered what it meant.
"And with the oil, your Master will ruin the world."
"So you dance this narrow and dangerous path, trying to keep him appeased with your progress while taking what time you can."
Tara had been slumping her shoulders until Willow said these words. Eased, Tara said, "I don't know what good it will do. I wonder if this apocalypse can even be averted. Part of me believes that postponement is the only grace." She looked at Willow, whose eyes had gone fiery and hard. "Despite what you are, Willow, despite your abilities, I don't want you coming up against my Master."
"Why, Tara? What if I can save you?" There was a grim undercurrent in Willow's voice which Tara was beginning to recognize.
"Don't you understand, Willow? Every scenario I build that has you in it ends with you dying. I know you are strong; my Master is stronger. He will kill you and there you are, dead."
A sundering chasm erupted in the space that followed the words, and Tara could almost see the protest behind Willow's eyes. Willow opened her mouth as if to object, but Tara softly touched Willow's lip and whispered, "Even if you do defeat him, and I am freed, you are still going to grow old. Whether through age or disease or a Drakensdvaerder war, you are going back into the ground and I'm going to keep on living."
Willow took a deep breath when Tara removed the soft touch of her hand, as if to rally her arguments.
When the words came, they were iron, rank and bitter. "Then why do this, Tara? Why will you have anything to do with me?"
Desolate, Tara got up from her chair. With trembling fingers she took Willow's hand; lifting her fingers she kissed them softly. "Because loving you gives me strength to endure even this, Willow. Loving you gives me hope for the day that I will be free." Seeing Willow still unsure, Tara kissed her, incredibly hard, and retreating but a little, said, "Because loving you, being with you, brings me so much joy."
Before she could interpret the look on Willow's face there was a chime from the vid. Tara immediately glanced at her computer monitor, which had instantly flashed into life. The momentary panic she felt at the chime that had so callously intruded on this moment quickly faded as she recognized the slow climb of Anya up the stairs.
"It's Anya," Tara said aloud, even though she had no need. Willow was already familiar with the brash purveyor of the poppy den.
Willow, however, did not really know who Anya was. And Anya would not expect Tara to have company. After all, she very rarely entertained guests outside of her clientele, who could hardly be deemed guests at all.
They were only necessary.
Their fingers locked, Tara pulled Willow out of her workroom and into her living room. Tara's apartment was miniscule in comparison to Willow's house, yet there was no expense spared in her own decor. There were paintings on the walls, by obscure and enormously talented artists. There was a tiny assortment of curios. There were no weapons in her house, save for a revolver that Wilkins insisted she own. Though she appreciated and enjoyed her things, they were just as transitory as the world around her. They would perish in the slow ravaging of time as all things on this earth invariably did. There was no permanence on this world.
The sun was beginning to set, and the light in her apartment began to grow dim. As if enchanted, Willow's hair continued to shine.
Heat was growing within Tara, an undeniable urge.
"Could you wait here, please?" Tara asked as she waved at her recliner. Willow did not object; she merely sat down, looking at Tara. Tara's own muscles had stiffened in the brief rest in the workroom, and were busy shrieking their displeasure to her. Tara ignored it as best as she could, limping through the silken curtain that led to the steel door of the den. Anya had a key to her apartment, as did Eva, but Tara would be courteous and open the door for her.
(will she offer her magic?
and can Willow know?)
In a moment she had unlocked the heavy door. Anya swept inside with as much energy as she could muster, but by her pale visage Tara knew something was wrong. "You've been MIA, Tara," Anya said brusquely, walking past her to enter the den, the naphtha lamps igniting with the motion sensors.
Only truth for Anya. Always only truth.
Hide whatever possible, but never lie.
"One of my clients injured me yesterday," Tara replied, closing the door behind her guest. She thought of Willow sitting in her living room, listening, no doubt, to every part of Tara's conversation.
"I didn't send anyone up yesterday," Anya replied, stopping to stand in the centre of the room near the replaced chair that looked exactly like the old one. "So what happened?"
"It was Willow," Tara replied. "She found out about me."
"That hasn't happened in at least a century. Did you give her a nice funeral? Perhaps I should send flowers; she always tipped well. On second thought, I might as well keep my money exactly where it is. She certainly didn't need any extra. I'm sure that scarred Steward of hers ordered plenty of flowers for her funeral."
"I didn't kill her."
Anya put her hand on the back of Tara's garish chair to support herself. Tara wanted to step forward, but knew Anya hated pity more than nearly everything. "She defeated you, Tara? I didn't think that was possible. Did she have backup? She must have had backup, maybe that bodyguard of hers, or the Steward."
Tara limped closer, very aware of the silence coming from the living room and the nearly horrified expression on Anya's face. "She was the most skilled adversary I've met in a very long time," Tara admitted.
"That doesn't explain where you went."
"She took me back to her estate and had Giles, her Steward, patch me up."
"Quack witch doctor. Did you seduce her, Tara?" Anya asked. Though Tara had centuries of Anya-experience, the woman still managed to surprise her. Her cheeks went hot and crimson; she ducked her head and blinked. "Or did she seduce you?" Anya rephrased.
"I haven't told you about my love life in centuries, Anya. Do you think I'm going to start now?" Tara said, trying to erase that damning blush.
"That's because you haven't had a love life in centuries," Anya replied. "There's a difference, you know."
"If I'm so overdue for a love life, then perhaps you should leave me alone to get on with things," Tara said, knowing there would be one reaction from Anya, a reaction that may have her forego her earlier questioning. It would be better if Anya didn't discover Willow's tattoo just yet.
"You mean she's here?" Anya asked. The blonde purveyor of poppies made to go through the silken curtain, but Tara moved in front of her.
"Yes, she's here, and you're cramping my style."
"Have you had sex yet?"
There was a barely contained laugh from the adjoining room. "No, Anya, and if you keep on like this, we probably won't either."
"It's not like I want to watch, Tara," the woman replied with a laugh. Then she brightened and said, "Well, actually..."
"Forget it," Tara said. "Now vamoose." She began to push Anya back towards the door, but she dug in her heels. Before Tara could blister her a little harder with a well-delivered vituperation, she noticed the expression on Anya's face.
She was so pale.
"What have you done, Anya?" Tara whispered.
Anya hesitated, then she looked past Tara's shoulder. Before Tara could turn to see what Anya was looking at, Anya said, "Come on in, Willow."
There was no sound through the thin curtain as Willow came through, so Tara turned her head to watch Willow walk into the room, slow and careful, a sheepish expression on her face.
"I didn't think you knew I was there." There was light hesitancy in Willow's stride, so Tara opened her one arm as invitation. Willow came to her, and her scent was a battering ram before her, fresh and exotic at the same time, that beloved coconut and Chanel. Then Willow's arm was around Tara's waist, and Tara looked between Willow and Anya to behold both of them reassessing their new positions in Tara's life. "I didn't mean to interrupt you," Willow continued, addressing Anya. "Are you all right?"
"You discovered Tara's secret?" Anya asked.
"She tried to kill you."
"Yet you are beside her."
Anya looked back at Tara. "This changes things, doesn't it?" she asked.
"That could be the understatement of the millennia," Tara replied.
"Have you told her about me and Eva?"
"Not everything yet." Tara was acutely aware of Willow next to her, the hard and lean body of the fighter hot against her side. The longing growing in her was no longer a soft and gentle thing; it was rapidly turning into a ravenous beast.
She still had not tasted the skin of Willow's wrist. Oh, how she wanted to!
And as awkward as it would be to ask, Tara inquired, "Do you want me to tell her?"
Anya looked back at Willow, her gaze strong. "I don't think so," Anya finally replied. "The secret of you is dangerous enough. If you want her to live, we better not tell her everything. Sorry, Willow."
"Do not apologize," Willow replied. "I understand. We protect what we hold dear, don't we?"
Tara's chest was hurting, but she couldn't tell if it was her wound or the joy in her heart. Willow softly squeezed her as she said those last words, and like so many of her beloved words, they settled deep in Tara's heart.
"Yes, we do," Anya replied. "You should realize that if you hurt Tara again, I will have you killed."
"I'm not that easy to kill."
Anya shot Willow a half-wistful, half-resigned look on her face, as if she were dealing with a stubborn child.
Tara understood that look on Anya's face, even if Willow did not. Willow likely surmised that Anya was not human merely through their conversation, but it looked as if the full truth of Anya's heritage would wait. Besides, Anya was right - any more knowledge of the supernatural world could be very dangerous to Willow. She was not the Marshal-General of the Drakensdvaerder, with gifts borne of ascension; she was only the First Lieutenant, and Tara very much wanted to keep her alive.
Anya was being polite. She wouldn't have Willow killed; she would be the one doing the killing. Anya could kill anyone she wanted to, without even lifting a finger. If she decided she wanted Willow dead, Willow would die, and none of her fancy sword skills would do any good.
There were reasons that Anyanka was kept enslaved at the Sunnydale Poppy Den instead of at one of the other twenty dens across the world; proximity to their Master. There were some fourscore of Tara's race scattered throughout the world; he had enslaved more than half of them. He was relentless in hunting down all those belonging to other Masters and transferring ownership of their collars.
(the blood that humans shed in their fight over us)
The last free dozen of her kind remained in hiding, protected in the only place on earth they could not be touched.
But Anya was the only one of her kind, and she was dying.
Anya looked at Tara, and Tara knew instantly what Anya was thinking. "Can I help you, Tara?" she asked slowly. "I hate seeing you hurt."
Willow was also a master of reading between the lines. She immediately pulled away from Tara. "Let me give you some privacy," she said. Tara wouldn't give up her hand though; Willow had to pull until their hands parted. "It's all right, Tara," Willow said, winking.
"Wait, Willow," Anya suddenly said, and both Tara and Willow looked at her. "Stay."