As always, the taste of lychee reminded Willow of Berlin. Softly bitter, softly mocking.
And as always, the thought of Berlin led Willow to think of her Caravaggio painting, what she had sacrificed to acquire it, and what it was supposed to mean to her. The Cupid, triumphant over the riches of the world.
amor vincit omnia
Love was supposed to conquer all. The love that Buffy shared with Riley, the love that Xander created with Cordelia, the same love that had slipped through Willow's fingertips like so much sand. Until now.
Willow's fingers were eagerly wrapped in Tara's hair. The taste of lychee on Tara's lips was disintegrating under Willow's fiery attentions; she could not be content with a mere taste, now that she had found a love that should conquer all. Tara's touch was a livewire on her skin, an igniting brand, joy and agonizing desire melded together with velvet gasps for air.
The love hunger struck her so hard she reeled from it; Willow wanted nothing more than to subsume Tara and her desires, to feast on them before the eventual famine.
The Drakensdvaerder had taught her to live in the now, but Willow could not help but wonder if an empty future would yet reveal itself. How long would she be allowed to love Tara before being forced to kill or imprison her as they had killed and imprisoned so many demons of the underworld?
How long could she keep Tara secret?
Tara was breathless when Willow regretfully pulled away. Willow put her hands on Tara's knees as she ran her tongue over her lips, and the taste left no doubt within her; it was subtle, it was mocking, and it was Berlin.
It was Buffy dancing on the arm of the Commander of the Luftwaffe, her eyes casting about in a way that Willow could not quite comprehend. When had her face become so pinched, so pale?
now, Willow. Bury the past.
"Lychee," Willow said.
"Yes," Tara replied, her dimples hiding. This game, if it could even be called a game, was more like psychological warfare. Tara said that Eva had taught it to her; had it been in concept and idea only, or had there been lips involved?
Six thousand years, Rosenberg. She's bound to have kissed a few people, just as you have kissed a few in your significantly fewer years.
Willow's curiosity about volcanoes was certainly far from assuaged, but when Tara had asked her question
(Why did you kiss me the way you did, that first day?)
Willow knew what kind of question was fair game.
"Why did my dream go wrong?" Willow asked quietly. "I mean, you'd have a lot of unhappy clients and no repeat business if all their dreams went the way mine did."
Tara was close, and lit only by the gentle radiance of the naphtha lamp; Willow caught a glimpse of the ocean of immortality that roared within her, some alien quality, whether by the tilt of her eyes or the soft caress of shadow on her cheeks. It was yet another unwelcome reminder of the truth that Willow and Tara would eventually have to face.
Willow shut her mind on such talk. As she had been taught, only the now mattered.
The now, and justice by the sword.
(my first oath of the blood)
"I don't kiss clients on the mouth," Tara began, hesitating ever so slightly, and fidgeting a little closer. "I never have before you. But when I did, some of my nightly penance transferred to you; my nightmare. I have also never seen inside a dream before; usually my nightmares are composed on a global level, not individual. I experience the agonizings of all; wars and bloodshed and tortures and rapings, all as payment for the dreams I am compelled to make."
Words were weapons, and Tara was merely an arms dealer. Willow shared those words now, and would use them to execute vengeance on Tara's Master.
Could she possibly love Tara enough to redeem mankind?
And what question would Tara ask next?
Tara was already closing her eyes. Willow looked at the dreamberry; it was the one fruit here she was not allowed to partake of. Should she hide it? Should she mention it?
After a moment, she decided to leave it be; when it was Tara's next turn, she would mention it, and hope that Tara would need no explanation. Tara's intuition would likely scream of the answer, the link to the Drakensdvaerder, but at least Willow would break no oath.
Willow looked at the vast array of fruit and carefully picked a cherry. She took great care to liberally coat her lips with the dark juice of the exquisitely ripe cherry.
She leaned forward and grasped Tara behind her neck; she guided Tara's lips to hers. As Tara began kissing her, deeply, thoroughly, Willow tentatively let go of her over-processing brain, those rational parts of her mind that never seemed to shut up. It was a very brief and small surrender; she gave herself over entirely to the sensations that gripped her body. Not only the soft and firm pressure of Tara's lips, but also Tara's hands, caressing her spine, Tara's legs, gripping her.
Tara's breasts, glorious against hers.
Tara took her time, tilting Willow's mouth this way and that, controlling Willow's neck with her lithe fingers. Willow could never have determined how long they sat there and kissed, slow and tender kisses that snuck behind her heart and thickened her chest. Tara pushed lightly with her tongue, so Willow opened her mouth, and Tara gently grazed the inside of her cheek; when she accompanied that beautiful ravishment with a soft hand on Willow's breast, Willow's world seemed to fold in on itself completely; only sensation remained, of being swept out on a tide.
She had surrendered.
Willow felt nearly desolate when Tara pulled away. She recaptured Tara's lips for a hot and fiery extra minute before allowing the woman to retreat.
There was high and glorious colour on her cheeks, and her eyes were marvelously dark and enchanting. "Cherry," Tara said, touching Willow's lips with the tips of her fingers.
Willow kissed those fingers before replying, "Oh, yes." She drew one of those fingers into her mouth and was rewarded with a gasp. She kissed those fingers once more before managing to ask, "Your question?"
It seemed as if the Apothecary was flummoxed. Willow smiled as she then kissed Tara's palm, then the heel of her hand, and then she paused.
There was more than heat in Tara's gaze. There was hesitation as well, and barely concealed fear.
This was no game.
"Your dream, as you said, turned out so terribly wrong. Why did you come back to me?"
Tara was so warm, so fragile under Willow's hands; a gazelle hunted by jackals. There was such pain in her face. Looking into those darkened and distraught eyes, Willow found the courage where she had never looked for it before; it was tucked away behind her heart, the place that Tara had just touched. There she found the strength to tell the truth, and all of the truth, the truth of a warrior.
Willow had woken from her dearly purchased dream with the feeling of her favourite rapier in her hand, the hot bloody fingerprint of the Apothecary on her cheek. Sour bile coated her throat and shame and sorrow scoured her so deeply she prayed she would perish of it.
Love was there as well, chemical love, created by a chemist. It floated along her bones, sparked her nerves, made her weak with want.
She awoke and looked at the Cracker Jack ring on her hand, and found she could not think of Buffy at the fair, the Buffy before the agonizing summer training camps, the Buffy before the Drakensdvaerder made her into the Marshal General, or the Buffy who had carried Riley's child. She saw only the fallen Buffy, and then her own hand on her sword hilt, plunging into the body of the Apothecary known only as Tara.
The Apothecary, who would pay for what she had done. She would pay, one way or another, for this tainted dream.
Willow locked the Cracker Jack ring in a drawer, and Xander's old comics came to her mind; the soldiers who prepared for battle, their shields lifted and locked, sword partners ready to die for them. Willow's own shields, so precarious the day before, so somehow fragile before the damning luscious woman that was the Apothecary, were going right back up, right where they needed to be.
Hadn't she learned by now that being vulnerable equated to being hurt?
She should have known better than to let her guard down, especially for just a pretty face, especially for someone who kissed people for profit.
but I want her
To the vid screens, and her research, because if she was ever taught anything it was to know thy enemy.
(live for the now
justice by the sword)
That mark, in the crook of Tara's elbow. And then Jenny's face when she walked in and recognized it. Jenny, whose face had twisted in hatred and horror, and Willow could see the Gyptian as she had been the day Willow rescued her. The day of the extraction was a day of burning brands, of her hair singed with glowing faggots, of heated chains wrapped around her thighs, of pus oozing from old wounds and all about the broken Gyptian woman was the reek of the charnel house.
Then the shrieks of those falling to Willow's charmed sword.
After they had rescued Jenny from Alyanya's torture, they brought her back home where Joyce Summers brought her back to health. Only then did Willow really understand who it was that she had saved.
The next Queen of the Gyptians. What prophecy had she discovered to warrant such evil treatment, her capture and torture? Death had hovered close, had licked her, even as Willow had come with her justice by the sword.
"That mark," Jenny had admitted. "I recognize it."
That very day Jenny began to brew a potion of prophecy. Willow was not fooled - she allowed herself to be traipsed across the globe, seeking answers in all the wrong places just to buy Jenny enough time for the cordial to mature.
No such secrets could be kept from Willow. She had her own sources. To Rumania she went, and also to Tokyo.
To Ynys Dywyll, the Welsh isle of Anglesey, the land of the Cwn Annwn hounds of the underworld and the legendary seat of King Arthur.
to the speaker for the dead
The blood offering had to be a female lamb.
Willow purchased the tiny bleating thing from a stout woman in the village; paying far too much in her haste and her limited Welsh. She could have used Xander's help with the translation, but she knew what she was doing was deeply against the rules. He could not understand, and he was in Persia.
Only vengeance mattered, revenge for Buffy's blood spilling into her most treasured memory. That was the day Willow found out that the friendship equation was in balance, that Buffy needed her as much as she needed Buffy, and that all she ever wanted was to be needed, to be valued, and more than just homework help.
The barrow of Bryn Celli Ddu was protected by a razorwire fence against mortal intruders, and an inversion of sight against immortal ones. Willow had a key to the fence, but could only advance ten steps before being compelled to stop.
It was there that she knelt with the lamb. The little body shuddered in her hands. Willow hated every moment of it and directed all that hate, all her malice and fear and rage into the similar destruction of the Apothecary, who would pay for what she had done. Even this kill, this deliberate murder, would somehow be leveraged onto the damnation of the woman in the den.
It was the day of summer solstice, and Willow killed the lamb exactly at midday.
The skies were a scrubbed blue above her, and the barrow was distinctive; a mound of earth protecting the magicks within. The inversion would protect her from sight, even though a peasant would walk right next to the razorwire fence. There were no trees here, and the blinded grass seemed to disdain the sunlight.
After pouring the blood into a gourd, Willow was able to continue her way up to the Mound of the Grove of the Deity. She was armed with her red-tasseled rapier and her boots made little sound upon the ground.
She stopped before the narrow entrance. A shiver of fear seemingly flensed her muscles; never in her life had she so wanted to run away, not even the time of her first real battle.
The conquering of that moment, that wildfire fear, that bone sapping terror, such an insignificant thing in the tidal waves of time, yet so essential. The mastery of that fear was the moment she broke her first oath of the blood, and she didn't even know it. She would not recognize that moment for the fulcrum it was for some months more, not until after Tara was gone, not until she would stand upon the crest of the barrow with a new blood offering of gazelle.
Her lips still burned with the memory of the Apothecary's kiss.
Willow stood her ground. Her shoulder-length red hair was pulled away from her face in her fighter's style, her clothing was molded to her skin; no looseness, no quarter. She shivered under the touch of the sun; her face was tight, and her lips near bloodless with the strain.
The gourd was warm, the blood was fresh.
With her finger she drew a line of blood along the lintel of the stone opening, and along the jambs. "I bring an offering," she whispered, hoping that the magicks did not care what language she uttered. As she had hypothesized, only the intent mattered.
She then thrust her rapier into the ground; it shivered slightly with force. No arms were allowed here.
Willow took a last deep breath before entering the barrow. The smell of earth and age was strong, but her need was stronger. She would dare this, and pray that the Council would understand should she be caught.
It was a Gordian Knot, all about Buffy.
Her pinky finger felt empty and abandoned; there was no cheap plastic ring upon it.
She was swallowed by the gullet of the mound, and a narrow staircase led down into the core of the earth. The darkness that consumed her was finally eased as she entered a wider avenue paved with flagstone and supported with solid buttresses; the light was a soft green.
Only as she entered fully did she become aware of what was creating this organic glow. She had to bite her tongue in surprise; dozens of tiny caged pixies, all forlorn in their little prisons, glowing with that everlasting and bitter green light. The beings did not look up as she walked by; was she invisible to them, or simply unremarkable?
She approached the only other humanoid in this room, who stood near a waist-high fountain at the far wall with his pale back to her. From his incredibly muscled shoulders emerged enormous wings of dark golden brown, and she was struck by the conspicuous absence of some dozen primary feathers like gaping tooth-like gaps in his wings. The shape and colour of those wings frighteningly resembled those of the impish Cupid in her Caravaggio painting, who had stood over the spoils of the earth in his dark eagle wings.
Had he been plucked for his most powerful magicks? More blood than one opened Bryn Celli Ddu.
He hadn't much freedom. A gleaming manacle was about one ankle, and the connecting chain that slid across the floor made absolutely no sound. It defied the laws of science, and Willow found herself strangely upset by it, as if she needed that chain to make noise as it slithered across the floor.
He did not turn around to address her. "What is your offering?" he asked, thankfully in English. He dipped his fingers into the swirling basin of water and from it shot forth light and a symphony of dark sound.
"I bear an offering of lamb," Willow replied, triumphant in the steadiness of her voice.
Only then did he turn around to reveal a strong and chiseled face, marked by ancient weariness and scorn. "You dare much, Willow Rosenberg."
Willow was unsurprised that he knew her name. Angyles knew many things, perhaps all things. It was what she had been depending on; Rumania, Tokyo, Ynys Dywyll; her search for truth had long ago passed the point of no return.
"My need is great."
"Then submit your offering to the Well of the Worlds, and invoke the knowledge of the Shades," he intoned, stepping aside so she could see the whirling basin of water. She did not hesitate; she strode forth and poured the lamb's blood in a steady stream upon the waters. Then she remained, waiting for instruction; her research had not revealed everything.
If the Council knew she had ciphered even this much of ancient magicks, she would be reprimanded, and severely.
"You may ask only one question," Angyles said.
Willow nodded, and set down the empty gourd.
"Thrust your hands into the basin."
Willow did as she was told. The water was surprisingly icy, and there seemed to be a very slim oily slick on the surface.
"Speak your intent."
Willow had considered her one question long and hard. She had penned a hundred different questions, searching for the one that would satisfy her deepest need. The answer she received was born of labour and time, not a gift from the gods. From them she had no gifts.
"What is the soul deep desire of the being known as Tara, the Apothecary?"
At first, Willow thought she had been cheated of her question, that the blood offering did not invoke the magick she had anticipated. Could her informant have betrayed her, was her sacrifice of the lamb in vain?
All that stared back from the basin of water was her own reflection. Constant. Steady. Strong.
Only after long minutes did Willow understand.
(she desires only me)
Then did the Well of the Worlds erupt in noise and furor; her hands were immobilized, and it seemed that the blood of the lamb etched a story right into her skin. A most terrible story, of the blighted earthly existence of the Apothecary, a horrifying recitation of disease and heartache and despair, collared and beaten and very nearly broken. Willow more than saw those images; she felt them branded into her soul, a wound deep and invisible. Her heart reaved inside her, for she also remembered the Rumanian boy and the casual cruelty of mankind.
Then the image altered its composition somehow, and she knew she was seeing one possibility of the future.
Tara, collared and insane, surrounded by a cadre of feral black panthers, underneath a sky boiling black and bruised. Her hands were bloodied and she laughed in creeping madness. Her fingers endlessly strummed against her collar in an endless litany of damned prayer.
That bruised sky above her ruptured, and from some dark tunnel emerged horrific locusts of destruction to feed on the bounty of mortal souls in the world.
Was the Well thinking of its preservation against the coming apocalypse? That to show Willow one future would be to deny that future any power?
From her youth, Willow had learned she could do all things.
Near her, Angyles fluttered his wings, and a single primary feather flitted to the unholy ground.
"The Shades have spoken," he said, and the spell was finished.