Tara blinked her eyes. She had not felt this bewildered in a very long time.
The whispering sussuration of Willow's voice had finally stopped, and the thirty-one year old woman tucked in her body before her waited with false patience; like the swaying head of a cobra that undulated under the cap of a wicker basket, drawn out on the tune of the marinet. Willow licked her lips as she waited, and her tongue was small and pink.
Never had Tara understood her more. It was this moment, wrapped within Willow's coils, that Tara began to acknowledge that Willow would indeed save her, most likely by destroying her in the process, just as Dawn had once saved the world by destroying it.
The coastlines had drifted, continents ripped apart and sent to new homes upon the planet, receiving a complete face lift as if Dawn were no more than a plastic surgeon. Mankind had nearly perished. It was the Destruction of Earth, just as there had once been a Destruction of Water; a great flood that had once again nearly eradicated mankind. The pyramids had survived, though the civilization that had built them utterly perished.
It was not Piri Reis himself who had mapped the world before the coastlines shifted, but made his inks on the skin of a gazelle based upon other source maps, ancient maps that should have perished with time and destruction.
Tara now knew that it was the Drakensdvaerder who had saved those maps. Just like it would be Willow Rosenberg, the First Lieutenant of the Drakensdvaerder, who would save Tara. Tara knew it.
And the whole of it was a great trickery, a grand farce, a catch 22. The moment of choice would come, and Willow would choose to sacrifice the entire world in order to save Tara's life. No high road, no martyr's choice. Willow would save Tara, and the world would fall, and Willow would fall with it. And once again Tara and her kindred would remain with a handful of humanity, and the weight of all those deaths would crush her.
Tara desired her. Willow had seen it. Willow had come back to her because of it, and started this whole chain of events, leading up to this very moment. Tara still had cherry on her lips.
And now, instead of saving the world, Tara had sealed its fate. Could she prevent the apocalypse she had inadvertently caused, the day she chose to kiss Willow on the lips?
"Tara?" Willow was asking. "You're kinda freaking me out."
Tara was six thousand years old, and suddenly she felt as if she had no more time. Time was not her puppy, her plaything, her toy.
The hourglass had been broken, and the volcanic sand would spew forth. She only hoped there was enough time to awaken Dawn.
Tara blinked again, and Willow came back into focus. Willow and her curiosity. How many things did she break in order to understand them? How many tears did she shed when she found they could not be repaired?
The world was always ready to be broken. If not Willow, someone else would surely do it. The destruction of the earth lay down every single path of circumstance; its eventuality was as constant as the sun. If they were really going to save the world by destroying it, she might as well enjoy the ride.
"You went to those extents to discover my secrets?" Tara asked, her voice carefully neutral.
"You were a tough nut to crack," Willow replied, resting her hands on Tara's knees. "Not even a nut. You are like one of those freaky Nipponese fruits, like a durian, that has spikes all over it."
"Um, don't Baboons eat durians?"
"I think they are the favoured spikey fruit of Orangutans, actually. At least I think that's what the Nature Vid would say. They are a handy fruit to have in a crisis."
"You lost me there. A durian as a crisis fruit?"
"Yeah, you just put it on the end of a stick and you have an instant mace. You can run around and mace people, if the smell doesn't kill you first."
"I suppose Orangutans are more impervious to stench than humans. Please tell me you don't speak from experience about this." Tara's head was still whirling; Willow's words seemed to dance and sizzle in the air.
Her hand on Tara's knee was blazing hot. Was she an inferno herself? Could Tara consume her without destroying her?
"Well, it did start out as a training exercise, but it went wrong rather fast. Unfortunately, I was not the one on the giving end of the impromptu macing."
"What happened?" Tara asked, chuckling.
"Have we given up with the fruit game?" Willow responded, too innocently. "I was rather enjoying it. You know, with the fruit and the kissing and the explanation about volcanoes." Willow's forehead crinkled, and she asked, "So you are spit up by the volcano in this human form every time? Or do you sometimes come back different? And who is your pure mother?" Her eyes widened even further as she asked, "Wait, when you die, is your connection to your Master severed?"
Tara withdrew inside herself for a moment to consider how to answer, but the moment that her eyes shifted back, Willow started to scoot out of her embrace, likely to arm herself.
Tara shot out her hand to grasp Willow gently by the wrist. "It's all right," Tara said, her voice husky. "You're safe. I'm just thinking."
Willow's wrist was thin and birdlike. The skin was pale, and Tara could see the tracery of veins underneath. She held Willow's wrist and an all-consuming urge came upon her, to touch that wrist with her tongue, to see what Willow tasted like there.
And there, in the hollow of her throat.
And behind her ear.
And upon her breast.
"Yes, I resume this exact same form every time, at the exact same age I am now. I have never been a child, nor will I ever be. Neither will I grow old. I am a half-human hybrid; my inner soul is made of fire. My pure mother is pure energy; she can clothe herself in skin and in cloud and in fire. When she chooses to be born, she can be a human baby. When she is born as a human, she has to die as a human, sometimes of old age, which I envy."
Tara stopped to lick her lips. Willow waited for the answer that meant the most; she had caught her lower lip in her small and perfect teeth.
"And no, the connection is not severed by my death. My servitude to my Master is dependent on his lifeblood; as long as he lives, I will remain enslaved by him. Some previous Masters, male or female, have died of old age, and I have then been released. That doesn't happen often, which has led to me rarely being free. We are coveted; nearly all of my Masters have been murdered, and then my ownership transfers immediately to the one who did the killing."
"Are there three wishes, like in the myths?" Willow asked.
"Yes. Thus the true farce of owning a..." and Tara had to stop, forcefully, by clacking her mouth shut. Her face whitened; she had nearly triggered herself.
Willow touched her face, and Tara covered those warm fingers with her own. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "Well, owning one of my race, you can use your three wishes in an hour and yet you have a lifetime to regret it, for we will be enslaved by you until the moment you die, and everyone will want to kill you for that which you own."
"Have you ever had a kindly Master?"
Tara looked at her Willow, the woman who loved her, who would destroy her. And then she answered.
Ur, 1204 AD.
Tara was thirty five years old. She had been born with the eruption of Mount Etna in 1169. The eruption had been rather strong; she and five of her sisters had been expelled from the earth onto the smoking slopes of the mountain. She was captured quickly. Too quickly.
She strode behind her Master, and there was a veil covering her face. She was wearing far too much clothing, and the air surrounding the Euphrates River was thick with water and redolent with the stink of the ancient city. River trade had been stymied by the enthusiastic cavorting of hippopotami in the river, so no one really understood why her Master was getting so rich.
All three wishes were gone, but still he lived.
The marketplace was thick with people, and the sun was a crushing weight on her clothing.
He was too prosperous, and too smug.
He also had dark tastes. At the moment he was bargaining with a vendor over the price for a teenage slave girl. She had dark skin, and eyes as smooth and hard as tourmaline. Tara appreciated the strong line of her jaw, the fiery snap of her eyes. Though she was chained, and therefore still, she seemed to be all tempest underneath; a demon of wind and storm, perhaps.
Coins exchanged hands. The ownership of the girl on the chain was transferred.
The unnamed girl stepped into line behind him and didn't say a word. Neither did she look at Tara, who was only just another piece of property. Tara analyzed that stoic silence, that trembling of winds. Did the girl wonder what Tara's price was? Did she rebuke Tara for not killing this man in time to save her from this fate?
The mark in Tara's elbow was quiescent, and hidden by fabric. This man had her collar.
His estate was lush; the valley around Ur was fertile. In time it would menstruate all sorts of blood and evils from its womb; for now it vibrated with life.
No sooner had they arrived in his house than the girl wrapped her chain around his neck and strangled him to death.
The transfer of ownership was never subtle.
The girl's eyes opened wide as Tara became hers. Tara instantly knew so much about her; where she had grown up, what had happened to her family, the meagre living she eked on the vicious streets of Ur, where every day was a new battle to stay alive until Dawn.
She had not yet spoken her name, but Tara knew what it was.
Compulsion made Tara's tongue a clay serpent. "What is my Master's request?" she asked.
The girl stared at her. Soon the courtyard would erupt in activity; if they didn't leave soon they would both be killed. How long would her ownership last, or would Tara go through Masters in a bloody and hate-filled succession as she had too many times before?
"I wish for you to make us safe," Lilith said.
Us. Not me. Us.
"It is done," Tara said. She made no movement, no gesture. They still stood in the courtyard, and the sun laughed at them.
The men came running, and still Lilith stared at her. Would she run, or would she trust Tara?
Those servants and bodymasters congregated at the corpse, turning him over and jabbering to each other. When they came near, they passed through Lilith and Tara as light passes through glass.
"Your name is Tara?" Lilith asked.
"Do you have a home?"
Tara would not smile. One Master was much the same as any other. "You are my home now," Tara answered.
"Then allow me to care for you, as I would care for my home and everything in it."
Tara was still holding Willow's wrist.
And then she released it. The rest of the story would wait. The black memory book would remain shut.
Willow's eyes were ablaze.
"When were you recruited to the Drakensdvaerder?" Tara asked, hoping that her sudden telling of all sorts of truth would make Willow want to reciprocate in kind.
"The summer immediately after high school graduation," Willow replied. "I finally learned the truth about Buffy's summers, where I thought she was just globe-trotting with her mom and with Dawn. She was actually in the summer training camps. There had been an accident, a bunch of recruits died, and so I was recruited where normally I would have failed. I guess their standards were lower that year."
Dawn. She said Dawn.
"Why would you have failed recruitment?" Tara asked. "I mean, you're a superhero."
"Not back then I wasn't," Willow replied. "I was gangly and socially inept and had a horrible taste in clothing. I had no more ambition than getting straight A's and into Oxford. I failed the physical testing three times. The only reason they allowed me to fight for admittance was due to my brains. I, uh," and Willow paused.
A twinkle came in her eyes. Tara felt as if she'd been punched in the chest. The ache to devour Willow was getting stronger and stronger.
"You, uh, what?" Tara prompted in a husky voice, having to clear her throat of her sticky desire.
"I decoded every cipher they gave me, and passed every exam, but still one of the instructors bugged me so much about my lack of anything remotely resembling grace and strength. I decided to hack into his bank account and empty it. I didn't feel right keeping the money, so I decided to go all Robin Hood with it. A number of societies got some very generous anonymous gifts."
"If you were Robin Hood, then who was Little John?"
"Buffy. My sword sister."
"Okay. And Maid Marian?"
Tara burst out into a laugh and gave Willow a quick hug. "How did Xander feel about being the girl?" Tara asked.
"At first he was all huffy, which we just said made him more like a girl, and then Buffy reminded him that the Nipponese used to have Kabuki theatre all the time where guys played the parts of girls. Shakespeare himself invented drag."
Some deeply dead and buried part of Willow came briefly to life as she spoke of her friends, and Tara desired her even more. That vivacity, that spark, that wit and grace and laughter; who had murdered those parts of her Willow?
"You miss them a lot," Tara said softly, squeezing Willow briefly with her thighs.
"The ache of missing them will never go away," Willow replied. "I sometimes feel like I lost both of them, you know?"
"Why don't you see Xander more often?" Tara asked.
And Tara understood.
Willow's tattoo. The scar on Giles' cheek, the hatred in Jenny's eyes. The miasma of despair that cloaked the painting, Whirlwind of Lovers. The Piri Reis map, the dojo, and curvaceous Faith.
Xander is the Marshal General of the Drakensdvaerder.
Note: This applies to all of you who remember far too much. I have repeatedly warned that this work is live, so I'm changing something I already wrote about. Some time back, I said that Lilith lived 400 years ago. She actually died some 600 years ago. You've seen why this is important.