There was a small and deep and strangely malignant part of Tara's mind that knew that things were about to change. Part of it was due to the game she had in mind, a game to play with Willow. Another part was about Faith, Willow's strangely familiar driver. She had sent Faith out as a test, to see how long it would take Faith to return, and how intuitive Faith would be concerning her budding relationship with Willow.
That little corner of malignancy had everything to do with the seemingly innocuous event that had happened five hundred years ago; the first instant that Wilkins had taken her collar. He had been a young man then, dirty yet couth, somehow surviving the diabolical hatred of the streets of Samarkand without hearth or home. She had been unconcerned at first that he had found her, had captured her. Humans had such foibles; they spent their three wishes easily and without thought. He was scarce more than a boy; she would be quickly freed.
Not Richard Wilkins, though that had not been his name back then.
So as much as she hated to think of games, of riddles, of looking for motives, Tara knew that she was sending Faith out for more than fruit. Six thousand year old habits died hard, and the woman was damningly familiar.
Faith returned to them in forty two minutes, bearing bagloads of groceries and an overnight bag for Willow with a change of clothes and toiletries. Knowing now how far away Willow's mansion was, Faith's alacrity in finishing this mission was surprising, especially as Tara began to unpack all the fruit. There was, as she bid, a single piece of fruit in dozens of varieties. Papayas and pomelos, apples and apricots, dragonfruit and dreamberries, lychees and limes, bananas and breadfruit and pineapples and more.
And Willow; her eyes were bright, there in her chair, and she watched Tara's movements with an eagle eye and barely restrained curiosity. The girl was so incredibly endearing that Tara could have fallen in love with her again if such love did not already lay siege to every corner of her jaded heart. It was a painful wanting ache that struck her in the chest as she looked at the First Lieutenant of the Drakensdvaerder, now that Faith had departed for home, knowing that Willow would be staying with her this night.
Trying to ignore the smouldering look on Willow's face, Tara concentrated on setting out the fruit on the immaculately tiled floor of her kitchen, remembering with some difficulty the last time someone had slept with her in her bed.
It had been a woman.
It had been Eva.
It had been one hundred and twenty three years ago, and her sister merely held her as Tara sobbed herself to sleep. Sister of race, though not of blood, but Tara had never felt towards Eva as she did towards Willow. Despite knowing of Willow's skills, despite knowing of Willow's training, Tara felt an incredible surge of protectiveness regarding her, wishing she could wrap her up in gauze and keep her safe from the world. Having Eva hold her that terrible night had been necessary; Eva's touch did nothing for her except comfort.
Not so with this firebrand, this Willow. Tara was still amazed and a little appalled at how quickly she had fallen for this mortal, and more than fallen. She was now risking everything for a person she had only known for eight days. A person whose death she'd mourn for eight hundred years, collared or not.
The price of immortality.
Willow was such that deserved to be mourned with fervour and intent; while Tara lived her memory would never fade from the world.
And Tara would live forever.
Willow was not blushing now, not as she had been moments ago when she told Faith to return to the mansion without her. She hadn't really needed to say the words; Tara had hinted as much when she sent Faith on her errand, only hinted, and the remarkably intuitive girl had returned with an overnight bag. The blush on Willow's face then was enormously charming, and Tara vowed to do whatever she must to see that slow ember alight on Willow's cheeks.
They had both changed into nightclothes; tank tops and silky pants. Hesitation was thick and searing. The blush Tara loved came and faded; Tara wanted to see it again.
Eva had spoken of this game one morning over breakfast about a hundred years ago; she had played it with a young man she eventually seduced. Eva had more than hinted that Tara needed to find an appropriate partner to play the game herself, but Tara always refused. Lilith's blood was still on her hands, and there was no one worth kissing anymore. Mankind was doomed.
Would Willow see the game for what it really was?
Yes. Oh, yes, she would. She was the First Lieutenant for a reason, and not just because of her swordsmanship.
Who is the Marshal General?
"You don't have anything kinky planned with all of this, do you?" Willow asked, half admonishing and half hopeful.
"We could layer in all sorts of levels of kink if you'd like," Tara replied. "But suppose we start off rather innocently, just to give us some room to play in." Tara sat on the floor, two knives on a napkin next to her, completely surrounded by fruit except for a bare patch right in front of her. She patted that space of tile and said, "Come sit with me, Willow."
The girl actually swallowed and blushed just a tiny bit, and there was a hard knock of desire in Tara's gut. Trying to stay playful, at least for now, Tara watched Willow come to her, and there was no wicked black eye on Willow's face, nor the constriction of her ribs, nor the bristled scab over her belly. Anya, for reasons of her own, had healed them both. Tara was quite grateful. This game would have been difficult, otherwise.
She was still rather astonished at the oath Willow gave. That deep malignant part of her wondered why Willow had done it, what Willow had to gain.
Willow seemed a little uncertain of how exactly to sit, so she sat cross-legged at first, facing Tara. Flashing a low
smile, Tara uncurled her own legs and splayed them, one on each side of Willow's thighs. Scooting forward just slightly, Tara tugged at Willow's ankles until Willow unfurled her own legs; Tara placed them quite deliberately around her waist, until she and Willow, face to face, were only a foot apart from each other, their legs supportive and comfortable.
Willow swallowed again and said, "Hi."
"Are you comfortable?"
"Yes and no," Willow replied honestly. Tara lifted an eyebrow and Willow continued, "Not that I'm uncomfortable sitting like this, it's actually quite cozy, so I guess I'd say the uncomfort part comes from not knowing what we're doing. I don't always do well with the surprises."
"Still no birthday clowns or alleys," Tara said.
"I know, but I don't see any chocolate, either." Willow squirmed slightly, settling deeper into their leggy embrace, and another thunderbolt of nerves crackled along Tara's spine, her loins moist and thick.
"This is better," Tara said, her voice slightly husky, picking up a piece of fruit nearby, which happened to be a strawberry. "The game is this," she began to explain. "You will close your eyes and keep them closed, no peeking! I will choose and eat a portion of fruit and kiss you. If you can correctly identify the fruit I just ate, then I have to truthfully answer any question you ask me, barring those secrets that are held by oath or compulsion."
Tara certainly didn't want to be triggered again, and who knew of the secrets of a Drakensdvaerder?
Willow's eyes had grown darker and more wicked as Tara explained the game. Tara was glad they were both sitting on the floor; if Willow had looked like that when they were upright, they wouldn't have stayed upright very long.
That wouldn't really have been a loss, though.
Focus, Tara. Questions. Answers.
"Would you like to play?" she asked, delighting to play innocent, even though she knew full well what Willow's answer would be.
"Hmm, let me think. Yes," Willow replied instantly.
"It sounds like that think wasn't well thought out. Are you sure?" Tara teased.
Willow's hands wrapped around Tara's lower back and pulled herself even closer, arching her knees over Tara's thighs. Their faces were not very far apart now, and lit only with a single naphtha lamp on the nearby table. For a moment Tara wanted to give up the idea of the game and just kiss Willow senseless.
Too many questions. This was a perfect way to answer them.
Besides, Willow was already speaking. "Eat the damn fruit, Tara," she mock-growled.
Willow was already closing her eyes. A little hesitant now, Tara looked at the enormous variety of fruit, wondering what she should start with. Anticipation and need were cluttering up her insides. Finally she chose a nectarine, pared away a piece of it with the knife and popped it into her mouth, being sure to coat her lips liberally with the juice. She chewed and swallowed and then whispered, "Keep those eyes shut, Willow. I'm coming in."
They were already so very close to each other. Tara lifted her hands to cup Willow's face, to ground her and center her. Willow was already leaning towards her, eyes screwed shut. Even with the warning, Willow jumped slightly at the contact. Then Tara kissed her, starting softly, a repeat of their very first kiss that day in her den. Just lips and no more, and just when it seemed Willow was about to change it, as she had that day, Tara pulled away.
Tara put her hands on Willow's hips, and Willow opened her eyes. She ran her tongue over her lips and then said, "Nectarine."
"You're right," Tara breathed, already half-wishing they weren't playing at all. She ran her own tongue over her lips like a mirrored reflection when Willow did, and the desire to kiss her senseless only got stronger.
"So I get to ask a question? Any question? And you'll answer?"
"Yes, but if I can't answer it, I'll tell you instead of leading you on to another sword fight."
"Thanks for that."
"You're welcome." Impish warmth was spreading throughout Tara, for this easy camaraderie was fast becoming addictive. Even deeper in her heart and soul, a place still untouched by any of Wilkins' manipulation, any of the horror of mankind for six thousand years, Tara knew that she needed more than a whirlwind of love with Willow, some hot and fiery blaze that would burn out and die too soon. She needed this friendship as well, this connection of mutual interest and desire. Intimidated slightly by the opulence of Willow's estate, Tara was glad they could come back to her place, for it was as safe as she could make it, collared as she was by her Master. Her books, her music, and now her Willow.
"Why do you hate the Beerenberg volcano?" Willow asked. She hesitated slightly, as if unsure what sort of questions they were allowed to ask and answer. Tara felt sure that there were far more burning questions inside her, but she must not know if this was a favourite things and colours kind of game, rather than a reveal your heart kind of game.
But with that one question, Tara knew the game would be interesting, indeed.
Willow was waiting. Her legs were very warm over Tara's legs, her chest rose and fell with unimpeded breath. Her red hair was falling over the cream of her shoulders, the tank top she had changed into.
Not merely adorable. Beautiful. Stunning.
Tara put her hands on Willow's knees and answered fully, knowing that by giving more here and now meant that Willow would feel obliged to respond in kind. There were a few things that Tara had to know.
July, 1350 A.D.
Crusted with ice, the cone of the Beerenberg Volcano was a timid pimple above the Arctic Ocean. It would be four hundred years before the great eruption that would create four square kilometres of land, thrusting the volcano proudly into the sky. For now it groveled in the eternal sunlight of the Arctic summer; a mountain as yet undiscovered by mankind.
Norvegia was a warlike place, but there was no battling the enemy that overtook them and the entire civilized world. It was the Black Death, and like any pure eruption, it was unstoppable.
Tara died of it on a lumpy mattress in Marseilles just two years earlier. It was a particularly horrific and painful death, and she wished she could have spent more time recuperating in the warm womb of the earth.
It was only there she could be with her pure mother.
Those of her race who were optimists believed that the eruptions happened for a reason, that the djinn was rocketed to the earth with the intent and well-wishes of the universe. They never knew what volcano would claim them; whether the sun-kissed slopes of Haleakala, or the icy embrace of Beerenberg.
Tara found it hard to believe such optimism the few times she'd been spit up by the volcano on the sere and frigid slopes of Beerenberg, clothed in nothing but human bones and skin over her eternal spirit of fire. From her bubbly blanket of lava Tara was thrown into hissing steam baths of liquified snow, cooling quickly in the Arctic air.
Every time she was birthed on the Jan Mayen island of Norvegia, through the Beerenberg Volcano, she died of exposure, shedding her adult human body as easily as she had been clothed in it. Her spirit of fire would race back into the molten core of the earth and await another eruption, hopefully from a better volcano.
This time was no exception, and Tara had long ago stopped counting the number of times she had died.
Willow didn't even bat her eyes; Tara interpreted only the slightest hiccup of breathing as a sign that she was surprised by Tara's story. Not wanting to go into further specifics, Tara closed her eyes, propelling forward the game.
Willow seemed content to play along. Tara heard some rustling, then the soft moist sound of Willow chewing and swallowing. Then Willow's warm fingers on her cheeks, drawing her close. The moment Tara felt the splendour of Willow's lips, so supple, so addictive, she ran her tongue over them, getting a taste, before tilting her mouth. A slow onslaught ensued, as their mouths locked tightly around each other, as their tongues dipped and caressed warm confines. A honeyed kiss, deep and passionate. Willow began to pull harder at Tara's hips, tucking her pelvis as close as possible. With their legs tangled as they were, with the velvet gasps from Willow's mouth, Tara again nearly forgot what she was doing.
It was Willow who pulled away slightly this time. Her face was flushed and expectant.
Oh, yes. The question. Did she want Tara to guess correctly or not? She must, with such a distinctive choice.
"Pineapple," Tara said.
"Yes," Willow replied. "Ask your question."
"Why did you kiss me the way you did, that first day?" Tara asked.
The slow morphing of Willow's face from something so charged and expectant to this abraded, downcast expression almost tore Tara's heart out. By some well of courage, Willow never shut her eyes or looked away from her. For a few moments she was silent, and Tara knew she was trying to find the right words.
It was the kiss that changed Tara forever. For her, it was the only question that mattered. If not for that kiss, her life would have continued the same way it had for five hundred years, all Willow-less and unknowing of the beauty that could await her.
If not for that kiss, for the desperate longings it afforded her, Tara may have already succumbed to the will of her Master.
Willow did not know the depth of it, but it may have been that kiss that saved the world.
"In the beginning, I didn't mean to," Willow began, hesitant and slow. "I thought you kissed everyone on the lips, some chaste peck, no doubt, and that I would be no different. I had never been kissed by a woman before, and the very thought of it was frightening, but I was determined to have my dream, no matter the cost. The money I knew about, but the kiss I did not. So yes, it began with you kissing me."
Willow blinked, and moistened her lips with her tongue, and Tara felt her heart expanding, to creak against the walls of her chest. "But then you looked so..." and here Willow paused a moment, looking at Tara oh so carefully, as if these words were only swords to duel with. "So lost, so fragile, so incredibly bereft of hope," Willow finally continued. "It had also been a very long time since I'd been decently kissed. When I discovered how good it felt to kiss you, hell, how incredibly freaking fabulous you tasted, with that current of sadness underneath, a longing and hope maybe even deeper than my own, I decided to kiss you back."
Willow was touching Tara's lips now as she spoke, cupping her hand under Tara's chin, her thumb grazing Tara's lower lip. Her gaze was mesmerizing, and every word she spoke was written in that precious and Drusilla-violated Willow-book of memories, a look to remember when Willow was gone, and every one of these Willow-moments just another method of torture when a new century came to pass, leaving the old one and everyone in it to the dust.
After her words, Tara immediately wanted to ask another question, for the careful acquiescence of this woman now was so contrary to the nature she had portrayed since that first day. That other Willow, the rapier-bearing and formidable Willow with the bandage on her arm and iron in her eyes, so strong and confident and bulletproof, who would not bend nor break, who would not willingly relinquish any form of control. How on earth did Willow come to trust her enough to let all her barriers down?
Only now, among the fruit, in the glow of naptha, did she get an inkling of the torment Willow must have felt when Tara rejected her at the end of their kiss that first day.
One thing was certain. Not counting whatever oath Willow had made for her, they were connected now, more than these limbs, this warmth, here in her kitchen surrounded by fruit.