"What do you know about blood, Willow?" Anya was asking.
The three of them were sitting in Tara's living room; Willow and Tara side by side on the divan, and Anya across from them on the recliner. Willow didn't think Anya was going for the scientific reply, so she decided to answer, "Blood is more than the body's delivery system for nutrients. It is, quite simply, life itself."
(it was all washed out of Buffy's hair by the time I saw her in the morgue)
Anya seemed to want a deeper answer, as if weighing whether or not to trust her, seeing as she had nearly killed Tara yesterday. It was obvious now that Anya wasn't human. A whimsical part of Willow was beginning to wonder if anyone was human at all, or if she was secretly the last of her kind.
Xander. Xander is human.
Well, as human as the Marshal-General of the Drakensdvaerder can be. Xander had been remarkably close tongued about his ascension to the rank, but it was obvious that he had somehow been altered. Buffy had been the same way.
Tara was holding her hand, and was quiet. The silence wasn't menacing, but it was certainly not golden, either.
Willow loved the feeling of Tara's hand, the womanly fingers so long and lithe and warm. She wondered what it would feel like to have those fingers touch her in the soft and secretive places of her body. So caught up in the sensation of Tara, and this most delightful ruminating, Willow missed Anya's next comment.
"I'm sorry," she blurted after Anya had noisily cleared her throat. "I was...thinking of something else." Willow was blushing, which she knew was information enough for Anya to make some rather frank and likely naughty conclusions.
"I asked if you believe in magic," Anya said. She was staring between their eyes and their joined hands.
Willow smiled a precious and whimsical smile. Should she reveal that she believed in Santa Claus even when her parents taught her not to? Or that, like Linus Van Pelt, she used to wish for a Great Pumpkin at Halloween? Money used to appear under her pillow when she lost a tooth.
She had been devastated when Xander finally told her the origin of that myth, information nearly lost to time yet granted to the line of Marshal Generals. It ended up being the same reason that Xander burned the clippings of his toenails or the leftover hair from a haircut. It was to keep evil shamans from casting curses, targeting enemies with discarded DNA.
Anya was waiting. "As a child, I did, in childhood magics like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. As I got older, I didn't believe in them anymore. But now... even before I met you or Tara, I started to believe. I haven't seen much magic in what you do, Anya, but I know that what Tara does is magic." She could almost feel Tara's eyes boring into her and her skin between her shoulder blades tightened in response, as if the tattoo itself was conscious and warning her. It was one thing revealing her tattoo and her identity to the woman of her dreams, and it was quite another to spill this information all willy-nilly, especially to this gabby and talkative and unflinching woman-not-quite-a-woman. She could feel Tara fidget next to her, and could only silently implore Tara not to reveal her secret.
She still wasn't sure that Tara would not betray her someday, whether under compulsion or not.
"Will you swear not to reveal my magic to anyone?" Anya asked. Skepticism still hunkered down in her voice.
Tara was trembling next to her; pain was evident in the white knuckles of her grip, the sharp and high breathing. Anya said she could help her. How yet, Willow did not know, but that did not matter.
She instinctively knew what to do, the only thing to do in this circumstance to prove her loyalty. It was one of the first lessons of a Lieutenant, a ritual as old as time and as deep as the world itself. It was late evening here in Sunnydale, California; it would be morning in Tehran. Xander would feel the power of this oath the moment she made it.
He would not be pleased.
(the second oath of the blood)
Almost in a trance herself, floating on clouds of pain, Willow rose from her chair, her ribs crackling and screaming, and she knelt at Anya's feet. She heard Tara's sharp inhalation of surprise, but Anya's pale face was strong, her eyes clear and challenging.
"Upon my life and my blood, my hands and my breath, I so swear," Willow said, her voice firm.
She immediately felt the magic of the words even as she heard both women sharply inhale. The repercussions of betraying this oath were formidable and unchanging.
Still she continued, kissing Anya on the forehead, then upon the backs of her hands, and then, the gazes of both women scorching the back of her neck, her own body screaming in violent protestations of wildfire pain, Willow kissed the top of Anya's feet.
The solemnity of the act, the ripple effect of truth mixed with magic, was enough for the blonde purveyor of poppies. Willow retreated back to the couch, her limbs trembling with the effort, and Tara's hands were upon her immediately, as if surprised to see that Willow was still real.
Her tattoo was throbbing. Distantly, Willow knew it for the same pain Tara would feel from her elbow mark when she challenged her boundary. For all her knowledge of the Drakensdvaerder, Tara knew nothing yet of Willow's own boundaries, her own compulsions, or what had happened the first time she made an oath of the blood.
Young and impestuous Jessie had known, and now he was dead.
Tara could not know just how much Willow had now pledged to her. Their fates were tied now more than ever, tethered and strong. There were other oaths, stronger oaths, that would make such a bond impenetrable.
Which of them would destroy the other first?
"Close your eyes, please, Willow," Anya asked.
Willow closed her eyes and gripped Tara's hand even tighter. There was a shuffling sound as Anya came near. Then a sharp inhale on Anya's behalf. Willow could feel Tara moving slightly, but whatever she was doing was not betrayed by sound. Then Tara sighed, in pleasure and comfort and relief so deep Willow felt a stab of jealousy.
(what is going on?)
"Do you trust me, Willow?" Tara asked softly.
"Yes," Willow replied, mired in the blackness of her eyelids.
"Open your mouth."
Her heart pounding, Willow opened her mouth. Upon her tongue fell a single thick, unknown droplet. The moment it touched her tongue, all richly sweet, a shock coruscated throughout Willow's body. With a jolting sting, Willow felt the pain of her broken nose disappear. The healing flood continued, warming and sparking her muscles, knitting them together again as if they had never been sundered. The gash along her belly was erased, the stitches falling out in a slow sigh. Her broken ribs fused together, and her heart beat in a wild and feral flurry of motion before becoming slow and steady once more.
"Tara?" Willow whispered, incredulous.
"Open your eyes, Willow."
Willow opened her eyes to see Tara's face, softly glowing in the evanescent evening light. Without weighing the consequences of her action, desperately needing to verify her information before coming to a conclusion, Willow ran her hand down Tara's side to touch the place where she had skewered the Apothecary the day before. Tara smiled and lifted her shirt slightly, tugging away the bandage to reveal smooth, unmarked skin.
Willow's hand was surprisingly steady as she touched that skin, unsullied, unbroken.
If only all of her mistakes could be erased so easily. Buffy would still be alive. Xander would have his eye, and Giles his fair cheek. Only Dawn would still be dead.
Her throat was thick. She had to rip her gaze away from Tara, so luminous, a fallen star, to look at Anya with unfathomable gratitude in her eyes. "Thank you for helping her," she said, swallowing over the words. "For helping us."
Curiosity a bonfire, a conflagration.
(but who are you?)
"You're welcome," the woman said, looking more worn out than even before. "Now that you're feeling better, go have some sex."
Willow flushed crimson and Tara simply chuckled, a sound as dark and sultry as Merovingian chocolate. Tara got up to escort Anya out of the den, and Willow watched her walk. There was no limp.
Tara returned to sit next to her on the divan. Willow drank her in. Her skin was tingling under the heat of Tara's returned gaze. Tara had reclaimed Willow's hand. "I'm kinda having a 'where do we go from here' kind of moment, Tara," Willow said. As much as she would desire such a moment between them to last forever, a viscous drop of honey in time, Willow was all too aware of the insistence of time itself, especially on humans.
Her stomach agreed with her, growling with a sudden petulant noise, loud enough for Tara to hear.
"Are you hungry, Willow?"
"I guess I am," Willow replied, loathe to deal with the necessities that were coming, like eating, and sleeping, and anything else that took her from Tara's side. Wasn't there any way she could just stay here, cocooned in the volcanic heat of Tara's body, ignoring the press of the world?
Willow didn't often get what she wanted in the way she wanted it. Everything that came to her came hard, on torturous pathways through blood and time. That was the way of her world now, a world without Santa Claus, without the Great Pumpkin or the Tooth Fairy.
A world of scimitars and the house of mirrors in the palace of the Shah, of harpies screaming and blood oranges. A world of Gyptian Queens and their zburator familiars, of volcanic glass and finger bones.
(when will Jenny be called back home to be their Queen?
when will she leave me?)
A world to save by the bite of the sword, pitted against an adversary whose army included the djinn she loved.
Tara touched her face, and Willow looked at her. The Apothecary was smiling, and she asked, "How do you manage to stay alive when your mind goes elsewhere so often?"
Willow's face fell, and for a moment Tara looked embarrassed that she had asked such a question, but then Willow replied, "I don't have to protect myself when I'm with you. When I'm with you, I can be a human, not a superhero."
Intensity flickered in Tara's eyes, igniting Willow's nerves, sparking her breath. It felt glorious to breathe without painful effort, and Willow silently thanked Anya once more. The moment being catalyzed by Tara's heated gaze might have led elsewhere if Willow's stomach hadn't growled again.
"Is Faith still outside?" Tara asked. The moment was sundered.
"I should think so," Willow replied, half resentful of the change in topic. "I hope she hasn't gone through an entire pack of cigarets. Giles will tan her hide if she starts losing lung capacity in training."
"We should get some supper into you before you fall over."
"You could use some nourishment yourself, you know," Willow replied, forcing levity. "As far as I see it, we have several options. A, we can eat here. B, we can eat at my house. C, we can get some take out food from somewhere nearby."
"I don't keep a very well-stocked fridge," Tara admitted. "I tend to just pick at things until Eva comes home and feeds me properly."
"No wonder you're rather scrawny," Willow teased.
"Look in the mirror, missy," Tara laughed back. "With all that red hair you look more like a matchstick than a woman."
"Matchstick, am I? I wonder if there is any way for me to prove your hypothesis is incorrect."
"You're a smart matchstick, Willow. I'm sure you'll be able to find a way." There was a definite leer in those last words, accompanied with a squeeze of her hand.
Willow felt her stomach bottom out even further at Tara's smouldering look. Her mouth dry, Willow said, "Well, seeing that eating here is out, we can either go back to my place or find something down the street." Willow said the words, not really caring what happened or where, just as long as she could stay right here, wrapped in this scent, this embrace, this unfamiliar and intoxicating warmth.
If Tara was anything, Tara was hot.
Tara was softly hesitant in the lights, and her face was pale and shining. "Would you be able to stay with me tonight, Willow?" she asked. "I could be coy and play some meaningless game of hard-to-get, but after 180,000 empty nights I'm rather tired of sleeping alone."
Willow couldn't quite keep her face from flushing at the mere idea of sleeping with Tara, especially considering Anya's parting words. Stammering and self-conscious and not allowing herself to hope, Willow said, "I'd love to sleep with you, Tara, and I do mean just sleep, because that's what I think you mean, not that I wouldn't love to... you know... but we nearly killed each other yesterday and we're only now just magically healed up and I shouldn't be expecting you to just jump into the sack with me just because I'm the only warm-blooded person around right now..." Willow's voice tapered off as Tara's grin got larger and larger, and finally Tara simply laughed and kissed her quickly on the lips.
"There you are, Willow," Tara said softly after she retreated. "A little taste of the Willow that was."
Willow looked at Tara, and remembered dreaming of her in that grey silk dress, floating through the masses of the fair, with the scent of hot oil and buttered popcorn and spicy tomatillos, the raucous laughing of the people and the piped music from the carousel.
(my side of the candy apple incident
I would dance with the Devil himself)
"I thought I had lost that Willow forever," Willow replied, a note of nostalgic pain in her voice. "I can't help but think you would have liked her. As nerdy as she was, that Willow was pretty special."
"The Willow that was, the Willow that is, and the Willow that will be don't have to be separate entities," Tara replied, low and firm. "Do you think you could be this Willow, this amazing and enchanting Willow sitting with me right now if not for the Willow that was, nor the dreams of the Willow that will be?" Tara glanced at the small array of books on a nearby table and Willow followed her gaze, feeling light and somewhat dizzy. "Every story in life is written as only you choose to write it. How many flashbacks will there be, Willow? Or can we just get on with living, because the future is built only on the bones of the present, not on the secrets of the past."
(is she channeling Xander now?)
Before Willow could articulate anything, for she was only absorbing these words now, and writing them in her own mind-journal, to read again and again in the slim spaces of imagination before sleep, recalling them until they became magic, Willow felt again the soft press of Tara's lips against her own. The kiss was infinitely sweet and innocent, just this contact of lips with no other contact at all, no frantic pull of fingers and hands, no hard breasts pressed together. Just this pressure, only this pressure, deepened by words.
After Tara pulled away, they stood and looked at each other for a long time.
Willow's world was rearranging, coastlines evolving, whole continents spreading and drifting and anchoring anew, and Tara was her cartographer, mapping these new vistas as Piri Reis did those centuries ago, making his recordings on the skin of a gazelle.
And the Willow that is couldn't help but wonder if this would all end up being a lie. A mongrel dog whipped too long is just as wary of the kind hand.
Gazelles are hunted by jackals.
"What were we talking about?" Willow finally asked, breaking the silence.
"Faith, I think, and supper."
"I'll ask if she can find us something to eat. You've got a fireplace in the other room, maybe we could roast some s'mores."
"Chocolate is at least one human vice that I completely understand," Tara replied. "But I think I have a better idea, that is, if Faith is up for some shenanigans."
"I don't know a lot about Faith, but I do know she is always up for hooliganism, especially if there is money involved."
"Let's go talk to her, shall we?"
Willow began to fish her phone from her pocket, but Tara softly closed Willow's hand. "Human contact, Willow," she said. "Even rebellious drivers with hooliganistic tendencies enjoy human contact."
Willow smiled as Tara kept her hand, leading her through the apartment without limping at all, emerging finally through the back door. The summer light was certainly fading fast, and there was only one street lamp in the alley. The rank smell of the alley was nearly a sledgehammer blow of vileness compared to the sweetness of Tara's apartment.
To their surprise, Faith was not smoking, nor was she busily corrupting the children with games and smokes. She was actually reading a small red leather book by the falsely bright electrical light of the street lamp, leaning against the post. In the fading light, Willow noticed Faith's posture, her shoulders slightly hunched over as she read, her face blank but her eyes tight. As soon as Faith noticed them step from the apartment, she straightened up and carefully put the book back in her jacket pocket.
Willow immediately wondered what kind of book it was. Damn curiosity. Though she'd never seen Faith with that book before, it was slightly familiar, like the shadow cast by an old friend.
They came down the steps easily, Faith's eyes narrowing at their non-limpiness, the absence of their battle scars. Faith pushed off from the post and met them near the car. "What can I do for you, Miss Rosenberg?" Faith asked as they drew close.
She seemed to be trying to ignore their clasped hands without revealing that she was trying to ignore them. There was a tiny and momentary jab of anger in Willow's heart, but then she told herself that Faith's look could be attributed to nearly anything, not just this simple show of gay love. Her dark hair was flowing over her shoulders, and her lips were that full and luscious red.
No wonder Spike leered at her so often. How often, and in what circumstances, Willow did not want to guess. Who else had feasted their eyes on this girl, or found themselves spun inside her?
(What is in the book?
and where have I seen it before?)
"We're getting hungry, and I'm sure you are, too. Should we go get some supper?" Willow asked. She mentally logged the book in her brain, to go over at a later point in time.
"Master Giles had come by about an hour ago with a cold supper Miss Calendar had prepared for us. It's ready whenever you are." Faith reached into the sedan and pulled out a rather large cooler. "I hope you don't mind, but I ate my share right away."
"Of course I don't mind," Willow replied. "I'm just glad and amazed that she thought of us."
"I'll carry it up for you," Faith volunteered. "Neither of you should risk falling on the stairs."
Willow looked over at Tara, not knowing what to say or how to say it. In the end they just went back up those stairs, Faith carrying the cooler behind them. Once back inside the apartment, Faith was shown where to set the cooler, and then she and Tara bundled off into the corner where Tara whispered of her idea.
Willow had to tell herself not to actively eavesdrop, though her resolve was taxed when a huge smile broke out over Faith's face (this joyful smile being a relatively foreign structure on her face, though she was quite expert at sultry smiles). Tara handed the driver a rather large stack of bills and Faith fled the premises.
Then Tara proceeded to unpack the cooler in a leisurely manner, humming a little to herself as she drew out containers of this and that. The food looked absolutely scrumptious, so Willow sidled over, her stomach gurgling in anticipation, and asked, "Um, curiosity, remember? What sort of hooliganism has Faith agreed to?"
"Don't you like surprises, Willow?" Tara asked, her own smile going decidedly wicked and alluring.
"Yes, if there is chocolate or mochas involved, though not so much with birthday clowns or being jumped in alleyways," Willow replied.
"Then I promise no birthday clowns nor alleyways," Tara said, pulling two plates and associated cutlery from the cupboards. "Though I will caution you not to stuff yourself silly. You'll need to save some room."
"I deduce then that there is food involved in this Faith-assisted shenanigan, which instantly lifts it above the birthday clown category. You're not going to have me eat cow eyeballs or assorted intestines, are you?"
"You watch too much Indiana Jones," Tara laughed. "Sadly, I am fresh out of cow eyeballs and assorted intestines, and the chilled monkey brains are still on order."
Tara pulled a chair out for Willow, so Willow sat down. She was content enough to watch the blonde Apothecary for a while, wondering at the change in her. In Willow's home, she had been somewhat closed off and shy. But here Willow was seeing another side to the genie who had commanded her heart, and every moment in this Tara's presence was enchanting.
Several hours later, Willow would reevaluate everything.