I wake soaked in sweat and my hands immediately grasp my neck where I expect to find large welts bruising the pale skin, where just moment ago I had felt Baby Dedara's fingers pressing in my sleep. I feel them still despite being fully awake. She's still with me, hiding in the shadows that surround me.
Draw in a couple of deep breaths, just relax and let your heart slow down.
Heart's pounding like a freight train, my breath comes in ragged gasps as I struggle to breathe. I manage to get it under control and it slows enough for me to get my bearings. I look around the room, the shadows pierced by shafts of moonlight streaming through the open blinds. This is not my cell, I'm not behind bars, and I'm safe...after a fashion. As I move to peel back the bed sheets I realise they're soaked through with sweat. I climb out of bed and my feet hit the cold floor with a soft thump. I don't think that I can sleep anyway. There's no way I'm going back to that place, or anywhere near that woman...even in my dreams.
Tara's door opened with a creak and she stepped out into the hallway wearing just the white t-shirt and boxers that Faith had given her that evening. They revealed her well-toned body. Her darkly tanned arms a stark contrast to her pale white legs, usually covered up beneath her coveralls. Her hair fell in bed-tossed waves down past her shoulders to the middle of her back. For a moment she savoured the feeling of actually having her hair unbound. In prison, due to the intense labour or the fact that someone was likely to give it a hard yank out of sheer spite, meant that it had spent much of the past 8 years swept back into a usually untidy ball of hair at the back of her head. She was surprised it hadn't turned grey and fallen out.
Tara began to walk down the dark hallway. She had no sense of direction within the Palace and therefore no actual destination, she just needed to walk. The halls were silent but Tara knew she was being watched from the shadows. She didn't care. Tara almost wanted to give them some sort of excuse to come at her with raised fists or perhaps shoot her in the back and be done with it. Although if she were given the choice, she wasn't even sure which option she would choose.
As she walked her stomach let out a furious growl. Tara realised just how famished she was. She passed more doors spaced at regular intervals along the corridor before reaching the end which terminated at a single door. Tentatively, she reached out and twisted the knob, the door opened inwards without a sound. At first her eyes met nothing but darkness. Gradually they adjusted, aided by thin strips of moonlight finding their way through badly drawn curtains. She found herself in a sitting room of sorts, squat shapes were actually a motley assortment of couches of a variety of different styles. A pool table stood on one side of the room, cues were laid atop it as though someone had just put them down. Tara crossed the short distance to it and ran one hand over the smooth wooden sides. As she moved she glanced around, hoping to spy the squat shape of a refrigerator in the darkness but there was none to be seen. Her stomach growled again as though it too realised this. She continued past the pool table to one of the windows. Her fingers reached out and drew one back, revealing moonlit rooftops and dark city streets. Old town was obviously not a well-lit place. As she stood gazing out at view she was surprised to find the place looked almost pretty. The darkness hid the most depressing aspects, and the moonlight gave it a gleaming shine that it definitely lacked during the day. Tara folded her arms across her chest as goosebumps appeared on her skin. For the most part she ignored the cold, lost within her own thoughts...until a small voice interrupted them.
"Can't sleep either?"
Tara didn't have to look over her shoulder to know exactly who it was, she exhaled a shallow but troubled breath to try and calm herself. She kept her eyes on the night sky beyond the window. A part of her willed the other person to leave and another part wished more than anything that they would stay. She closed her eyes slowly in an effort to stop her heart beating at a million miles an hour before she spoke.
"Hi Willow," Tara replied quietly, opening her eyes once more.
From the corner of her eye she saw the small redhead join her at the window. She watched as Willow bounced lightly on the balls of her feet as though she were impatiently waiting for something. Tara had known the moment she met Willow as a school child that she was not one to stay still. She remember Willow constantly bounding to her feet or raising her hand in the air to ask yet another question. The two of them stood side by side awkwardly. Both had much to say, although where one was fairly bursting with the unspoken words, the other buried them deep down as far as she could.
One of them moved first. Tara looked down in surprise to see Willow's thin arms around her waist. She felt her small body pressed against her back, pelvis snug against her arse. For just a few seconds Tara luxuriated in the feeling of a warm body pressed against her own. She savoured everything about it, Willow's warmth, her hands pressed against her stomach and her small breasts pressed...
"Willow don't..." Tara suddenly twisted out of Willow's embrace and spun to end up standing face to face with her.
As Tara looked down at Willow she realised she had ended up in the worst possible situation that she had told herself to avoid at all costs. Alone, with Willow, and in a darkened room no less. She took a step backwards but even as she did she could appreciate that the situation was also rather ridiculous. Here was Tara Maclay, tough as nails ex-cop who had survived eight years of hell on earth in prison, backing away from a skinny little kid wearing a pair of pale green pyjamas. The colour made her hair vibrant even in the semi-darkness. The pyjamas were several sizes too big for her, as though they were hand me downs. The plunging neckline revealed her creamy chest but kept the breasts, which Tara had moments ago felt against her back, safely hidden. Even in the wrong-size pyjamas, Tara could see little Willow Rosenberg was no longer a kid.
However, as Willow ducked her head and bit her lip, she continuing to fidget, her fingers playing with one of the buttons on her shirt. Tara sighed, there was still more than a little bit of kid left in her. It was maddeningly adorable.
Willow finally looked up at Tara, an adult measure of impatience registering on her features, "Would you say something?"
"I have nothing to say," Tara replied bluntly, trying to regain some sense of herself.
The ex-cop quickly resumed her former posture facing out the window, arms crossed over her chest as though she were trying to keep something in...or out. Tara was effectively telling Willow the truth. She had nothing to say to her because she honestly had no idea what to say. Willow was predictably not impressed with the answer.
"You have nothing to say in general or you have nothing to say to me?" Willow suspected it was a case of both, with an emphasis on the latter, "I don't understand Tara. Why are you going all avoidy on me? I told you how much I've missed you and all I get in return is a blank stare. Surely you must realise that I..."
Tara interrupted Willow before she could say the three words she knew would be the death of her, "I know you're grateful Willow and I don't demand anything of you in return. What more do you want from me?"
"I want you," Willow replied simply, talking to Tara's back as the blonde refused to turn and face her.
She had to make do with studying Tara's bland and expressionless reflection in the window. It was like talking to a ghost; a particularly silent ghost at that.
"You can't have me," Tara replied bluntly, her features remaining expressionless, "I'm too old for you."
"You're not old, you're beautiful!" Willow protested indignantly.
Tara wasn't about to be swayed, "I'm several lifetimes older than you, Willow."
It sounds harsh and it is. I'm blunt and I have to be. This is the moment, if I can convince Willow to forget about me now then I will be free. There's only so much of her attention that I can bear before surrendering to temptation. I continue to stare out the window, refusing to look at her face. I can't tell if she's upset or if there are tears threatening to roll down her face. I hope she cries, I want to hurt her so she'll get over this infatuation.
"Didn't you see me dance? I'm not a child anymore," Willow growled, "So you can't use that bullshit line with me."
Willow was angry that Tara had decided to play the obvious age difference between them; it was irrelevant in her opinion.
Tara did not reply straight away. Of course she had seen Willow dance and that was a large part of the problem.
"How did you end up in this sort of lifestyle?" Tara asked quietly.
"This sort of lifestyle?" Willow fired the question back at Tara, ""What are you insinuating by that?"
"You know exactly what I'm talking about Willow."
"Look Tara," Willow began, feeling the conversation slipping completely out of control, "I dance, I'm not a whore."
Tara sighed sadly, "From the company you keep I would say otherwise,"
Willow felt like screaming in frustration. Tara's calm, blunt and pointedly brief answers were infuriating, "What? You mean Faith, Buffy, Dawn, Anya and the others? Tara, those women are the only people besides you who had ever been kind or good to me. I love them for what they've done and continue to do for me. Who they are has nothing to do with how I feel about them. They're my family, I feel safe here."
"Here? Willow, 'here' is a whore house!" Tara finally spun around to face Willow, her voice rising for the first time, "My understanding was that you were going to a foster family."
Willow gave Tara a look taken straight from Faith's handbook, "My foster family kicked me out on my own when I was fifteen."
Tara's jaw dropped slightly in disbelief, "Willow? Why would they do that? How could they do that?"
Willow arched her eyebrow and replied testily, "It was all very simple really, they walked in on me fucking their daughter and I was out of there faster than they could say 'you're a dyke and you're going straight to hell.'"
"Willow please stop cussing," Tara whispered, struggling to maintain eye contact with Willow.
Tara's fists clenched at her side and eventually she did turn her head, pretending that she was intensely interested in the view once again. It took her a few moments to realise that she was not angry at Willow for swearing, but rather she was jealous of the object of fifteen year old Willow's affection or at least, attention. She realised that the question of whether Willow had loved the other girl was burning a hole in her mind.
Willow merely thought Tara was entrenching even further within herself and she was not ready to let up, "Why the fuck not Tara? Because it's another reminder that I'm not a child? How many more reminders do you need? What is it going to take for me to convince you that I'm a woman and I'm in love with you? In love with you not out of gratitude or guilt but because you're the most amazing woman in my life and the only argument you can come up with in return in that you're too old for me? I'm sorry Tara, but I'm not satisfied with that. I think, seeing who I am now, you feel exactly the same way."
I haven't been in her life for eight years, and before that I was barely a part of it and now...what the fuck do you call this mess I'm in now?
"Would you say something? Instead of standing there like you're made of stone. I know you're not made of stone...I remember you laughing...well, maybe not laughing, but you used to smile and that smile was gorgeous!" Willow desperately searched for a reaction from Tara and received none, she tried a different approach, "At least you should be able to say you don't love me...I reckon it should be pretty easy for a tough old cop like yourself to say a few little words."
Willow threw down the ultimate challenge, and she knew it. As soon as the words left her lips she discreetly bit her lip, it was the most rotten trick she could have pulled on Tara and she immediately regretted it. She reached out a shaking hand and laid it on Tara's upper arm. Tara wrenched her arm away in one brutal movement. In that same movement she also wrenched Willow's heart.
"Don't do this to me Willow," Tara groaned in a small whisper, "And don't do this to yourself."
Tara backed away from Willow, hands raised in front of her as though to ward her off. She looked as though she desperately wanted to say something, however, her lips moved but no sound came out. She eventually threw down in hands as though frustrated at her inability to speak the words she wanted to say. Willow then watched Tara run from the room without actually physically breaking into a run. The redhead was left standing by the window alone with the painful knowledge that their conversation had not exactly progressed the way she had imagined.
Tara had slammed the door behind her as she left the room. She slammed it hard as if her leaving in the first place did not give enough indication that she did not want to be followed. As she was half way back to her hotel room, she suddenly found her path blocked by Faith, Buffy and another of the ladies, a Uzi toting woman wearing a cop's hat. Buffy had in her deadly hands not only one of her katana, but also the leather collar of a jacket. The jacket was on the back of a rather defiant looking man. She threw him to the floor and delivered a firm kick in the small of his back to send him flying face first into the carpet. Faith reached down and grabbed a fistful of his hair, yanking his head back so they could all get a good look at his face.
Faith looked up at Tara and frowned at the tortured expression she found on the blonde's face. Although there were any number of explanations behind that expression, Faith knew it was not due to the most sensible. Tara may have just escaped from a life sentence but it was a skinny little redhead that was eating her up from the inside.
"Do you know this guy?" Faith returned to the matter at hand.
"Huh?" Tara looked as though all she wanted to do was throw herself from the nearest window.
"Do you know this guy?" Faith repeated, cuffing the prisoner over the back of his head.
Tara glanced down at the face of the man Faith held, he glared back at her defiantly. She didn't spare him more than a second, a two bit crook of the type she would have packed off to the slammer in a heartbeat back when she was still a cop. He was nobody. She shook her head in Faith's direction.
"Never seen him before. Why?"
"Cos he says he's got a message for you," Faith replied.
Tara's eyebrows raised slightly, "Well?"
The man laughed chokingly, "I've got a message for you Tara Maclay."
Tara crossed the floor in two powerful strides, kneeling down before the man, "I think we've gathered that already you piece of shit, now what's the message?"
"It's from Glory Talbot."
"I guessed as much. Obviously she's not setting me up on a date with her son so what does that murdering bitch want?" Tara felt like herself once more, she had a problem she could deal with.
"You," he replied.
Tara snorted quietly, "Seems that's what everyone wants at the moment...the short answer is I'm not available and you can take that back to your Madam Talbot with my fucking compliments."
"If you don't hand yourself over...she's declaring open war on Old Town, the cops will swarm here like flies on stink," he replied, glancing up at Faith with another chuckle.
Faith glanced across to her fellow Ladies with narrow eyes. The very thought was inconceivable...Old Town was a safe haven. The Ladies didn't mess with the cops, and the cops didn't mess with the Ladies, that was the law and the uneasy truce that kept the whole place hanging together. If either side stepped over the line then all hell would break loose.
"They wouldn't dare!" the Lady wearing the cop hat hissed, gripping the handle of her Uzi with white knuckled fingers.
"And they won't, Lola," Faith slammed the man's head into the carpet and then let his hair go, wiping her hands on her jacket with a look of distaste.
I watch Faith rise slowly to her feet, keeping her eyes on me the whole time. Behind her, Buffy does the same and I watch that wicked looking knife of hers like my life depends on it. These women aren't my friends, and the sooner I realise that the better off I'll be. I reckon they'll hand me over to Glory in a heartbeat, especially to keep the peace. Open war or handing over one tired ex-cop? It's a fucking dead cert.
Faith continued, "They won't because Glory knows if her goons or the cops so much as put a toe onto our turf with ill intentions then we'll cut them up so bad the streets will run red with blood, and you can bet your arses it won't be Ladies blood!"
Beside her Buffy gave one sharp nod.
If I hear it right, they're gonna protect me...maybe Willow's right and I'm short-changing these women...even so, they're a bunch of crazy, suicidal broads.
"Don't be stupid, they'll come in here with so much manpower you won't stand a chance," Tara spoke the truth and everyone knew it.
The door at the other end of the hall opened. Tara didn't need to turn around, Willow's smell filled the air and she heard the girl's footsteps pounding along the hall with urgency. They stopped just behind Tara, so close Tara could hear Willow breathing.
"There's no way we're handing Tara over to her!" Willow growled firmly.
They're a pack of goddamn heroes, and I hate to see it rubbing off on Willow. I imagine her going down in a hail of cop bullets and it hurts like fuck.
"No one's saying that Willow, now go back to bed," Faith pointed one finger in the direction of Willow's room at the other end of the hall.
Tara didn't see the expression on Willow's face but knew it was one of protest when she saw the reply expression on Faith's face. The brunette raised her eyebrows and glared in a commanding manner. Tara felt Willow move past her before she saw her. She then watched the redhead's back as she moved past them all without a glance back over her shoulder. Tara watched Willow move away from them, her hips swinging in those green pyjamas of hers, red hair flowing free over her back. She disappeared throw a door down in the darkness at the other end of the hall and Tara turned her attention back to the scum at her feet. By now he had dragged himself to a kneeling position, one foot forward as though he were prepared to spring to his feet. He was looking over his shoulder, up at Faith.
"So what's your answer whore? What word should I take back to Madam Talbot?" he asked, obviously impatient to be out of the Palace.
"What word?" Faith cocked her head to one side, "'Cos I'm so fucking generous, she can have several, 'Keep the fuck out of Old Town!'"
"It's your funeral bitches!" he sneered in reply, standing all the way up with a slight stagger.
Tara clenched her fist, "And this is from me."
In one powerful movement, she drew back her fist and let it go. It smashed into the guys jaw, dislodging teeth and sending them flying in a cloud of blood to the carpet. He fell backwards into the arms of Faith and Lola. Faith smirked across at Tara.
"Take this creep outside and send him on his way real nice like," she commanded Buffy and Lola, "Make sure he gets out of Old Town safe, we wouldn't want something nasty happening to him before he gets to deliver his message."
Tara watched as the two women half-dragged the man back out the way they had come, she watched until they disappeared and found herself alone in the hallway with Faith. The whore stood with one hand on her hip, a pose so maddeningly confident it made Tara ache.
"You'll soon see that we're not who you think we are," Faith said in Tara's direction, she was not boasting but rather making a simple statement of fact, "Whether you like it or not, we're going out on a limb for you."
I don't reply. Call me a rude, ungrateful bitch but my time in prison has made me cynical. All this self-righteous heroism makes me sick. When will they realise that it all counts for nothing? My throat is as dry as hell and I realise I need something to drink, something that burns. I push past Faith with the intention of going back to my room, pulling some clothes on, and getting the hell out of here.