Author: Chris Cook
Tara steered the Shadow's car through the open gates of a sizeable house behind tall stone walls. She stopped directly outside the front door and helped the injured woman out of the car and up the steps. The Shadow reached into a pocket in the black outfit she wore beneath her long coat, producing a key which Tara took and used to gain entry to the house. The hall lights clicked on as the door opened, and with the Shadow's directions Tara helped her up the flight of stairs and into a bedroom.
"Thank you," said the Shadow in a tired voice, "I think I'm okay-"
She doubled over in pain as she tried to support her own weight, and Tara caught her before she could fall against the door frame.
"Somehow I don't believe you," said Tara grimly as she supported the woman to her bed. She felt a silent laugh shudder through her body.
"Funny... I thought I was pretty good at fooling people. I guess my heart's not in it."
"Oh, no," Tara joked, dead-pan, "you had me right up to the falling over part."
"Knew I did... something wrong."
Tara laid her down onto the bed and helped her take off her boots and her coat.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" she asked hopefully.
"If you could make some tea... downstairs and on your right, the kitchen. I keep some herbs up here that will help me."
Tara worried as she watched the water boil. She had only had the barest glimpse of what had happened in the warehouse, but by the look of it the Shadow should have died. Whatever she had done to survive had taken its toll on her. Touching her, with only the thin barrier of her gloves and clothes, Tara could almost feel the imbalance within her, the loss of needed energy. Almost as if she were fighting a disease. Unbidden, the memory of sitting by her mother's bedside came to Tara, but at that moment the water boiled and she busied herself preparing the tea.
When she returned to the bedroom the Shadow was lying down, on top of the covers and still fully clothed. Her face was still hidden by her scarlet mask, but her wide-brimmed hat was resting on the table beside the bed, along with a pair of hairpins. Her masked face was framed by short red hair that had fanned out on the pillow. One drawer in the side table was open, and a handful of tiny leaves were resting on top of a wooden case, of a kind Tara had seen before, for keeping precious herbs and powders in. The Shadow nodded as Tara held the leaves up, so she put them in the tea. She propped a second pillow behind the Shadow's head, then helped her hold the cup and bring it to her mouth. Instinctively Tara reached out to remove the mask, but stopped herself.
"Sorry," she said quickly, "I-I..." There was a moment of silence, in which Tara dropped her gaze to her other hand, resting in her lap.
"It's alright," said the Shadow finally. Tara looked up at her. She nodded in reassurance.
Tentatively, Tara reached out and felt for the knot holding the cloth in place. She pulled on its end, and feeling it loosen she hooked a finger beneath the mask and pulled it gently away. Tara's eyes widened.
"What?" grinned the other woman.
"You're-" Tara stopped herself from saying 'beautiful'. 'She'd just think it was hero worship,' her thoughts chided her, 'and are you sure it isn't?'
"At the club," she resumed, "you were there. I saw you."
"Yep. Keeping an eye on you," the Shadow answered. Tara nodded and helped her take a sip of tea. "And," she continued, "to hear you sing." Tara paused.
"What did you think?" she asked after a moment. The Shadow's response was immediate.
"Oh, it was wonderful! I mean, I don't really get out much, for entertainment that is, stalking lowlifes doesn't really count as 'getting out' after all, so I'm not a connoisseur of music or anything, and besides a lot of the words were so poetic and I'm lousy at understanding poetry, but I really felt it, when I listened to you. As if all the words and images that I wasn't really understanding were building up inside me, like layers, until I understood it all without knowing how. Plus your singing was so beautiful, your voice is just so..." she paused. "And I'm babbling a bit, aren't I? I'll stop now." Tara joined her in a grin.
"Thanks," she said. "A-and," she added, defying the impulse to keep quiet, "I like your babbling. It's cute." She was rewarded with a wide, genuine smile, which warmed her more than she was really willing to admit.
"Well, thanks," murmured the Shadow, almost shyly. "I don't get to do it much, with the bad guys. 'Cause, you know, no-one ever heard of a cute crime-fighter." She took another sip of tea.
"About tonight," she went on, finding Tara's hand and holding it gently, "for saving me, and... all this. I can't thank you enough, I really can't. That was so brave, what you did."
Tara opened her mouth to say 'You're welcome,' but her voice refused to work. She smiled and ducked her head in acknowledgement, her eyes coming to rest on their two hands. The other woman had taken her gloves off, and Tara felt the heat in her grip. For a moment she was ready to look up and ask the question. Her mind was refusing to think of this woman, beautiful and strong and shy and awe-inspiring, as shadow, named for darkness instead of life. She wanted her name.
The Shadow suddenly coughed, and the spell was broken. Tara helped her take another sip of tea, then shifted on the bed.
"Y-you should rest," she said, her eyes making a coward of her, darting away whenever she tried to look at the other woman's face. She stood up slowly.
"Thanks," she answered, "I- yeah, you're right. Downstairs, the first door on the left, if you go through the sitting room there's the library. There's a bed made up in a little room off that, I kind of live down there a bit. It's not that big, but it's comfy."
Tara nodded, looked up at the Shadow long enough to offer a smile, then turned to leave. She was at the door, one hand on the light switch, when she heard a quiet voice behind her.
"Willow." Tara turned. The Shadow was looking at her, almost... hopeful? "My name's Willow," she said.
"Willow," repeated Tara, half to herself. She liked the sound of the name. When she sang she thought of words purely by their sounds, with rhythm and length and shape. 'Willow' was perfect. No sharp edges, no catches, just the feel of her voice flowing across it, bringing it to life. It was a song in itself.
Willow nodded, her hopeful expression settling into one of contentment. The two held each other's gazes for a moment, then Willow lay back, and Tara turned out the lights and quietly made her way down the stairs.